our journey together

our journey together

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Risk It!

Have you ever wondered what hold you back from taking a step of faith, of trusting God with all of your heart, soul and mind, of taking great risk for the Kingdom of God?  I have been thinking about these things as I have been studying the story of Mary and Joseph one again this Christmas season. 
Mary, a young lady probably thirteen or fourteen was engaged to a man named Joseph when she has Gabriel, an angle message of God, visit her and tell her she is going to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  She listens to this “calling” of God on her life and is obedient at great risk to herself.  This step of faith could cost her, her very life, as well has her heart (in light of Easter) and yet she enters into this calling.  
Joseph learning of his soon to be wife is pregnant he is outraged and when he makes up his mind to divorce her quietly, he receive his “calling” from God through the angel Gabriel as well.  He acts in obedience at great risk to his reputation, way of life, ability to function in that society. 
When they received their calling, and act in obedience, they experience (something we all long for in this life) purpose! 
So, why don’t we take the risk and walk by faith?  I think I know what it is – FEAR!  Fear holds us back from experiencing the full joy of our calling by God.  Fear is one of the devil’s (I don’t want to honor him by capitalizing his name) great weapons to defeat people by crippling them from receiving Christ, and crippling God’s children into living mediocre (at best) defeated lives.  God through His servant Paul writes, “God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).”  Fear is when we are relying on the wrong thing.
This Christmas season let’s be like Mary and Joseph and take risk by accepting the call of God on our lives to love Him and love our neighbors!   I think you will find when you do this you will experience great joy and a senses of purpose of life – or to put it like Jesus did, “Life and life to the full!”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Second Letter I wrote to Journey Fellowship

Dear Journey Fellowship,
I began this task of writing to you, as a baby church, navigating the dangerous waters of planting a church in an outwardly moral / appearance driven community, last week.  I started by reminding us, as Journey Fellowship, who God has called us to be and I will finish this commission to share how we are to accomplish our purpose. 
 I remember God tapping me on the shoulder a few months ago, while I was preaching through the Galatians letter, to write Journey Fellowship a letter applying the truths found there.  In order to cement what we as church had learned over the last year.  A written anchor, if you will, that we can look back on and hold on to in the future when threatened by things or people trying to distracts us from what really matters, Jesus. 
We can never walk away from the only thing that can transform us, free us and change us into who we were truly created to be.  You know what I am talking about because I have clearly preached the gospel of justification to you over and over again: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. 
Someone might come to church or to one of your Journey Groups and ask, “What is it that I need to be saved from?” or “Why do I need grace or faith or Christ for that matter because I don’t even know who Christ is?”  These are valid questions that you need to be able to answer.  As your pastor, I want to help equip you, to understand how to reach your fellow neighbors who are lost.
Most people in America believe they are born free to pursue happiness and accomplish their dreams.  But the opposite is quite true: we, as mankind, are born slaves to sin and death and work really hard to cut the chains off from around our necks that bind us, but in the end fail in our own strength.  The dream of pursuing happiness becomes a vain practice of selfish ambition in trying to satisfy the sinful heart.  
Is this true?  Look at every aspect of society:  government, judicial, military, law, mental health, medical, business ethics, law enforcement etc... All are put in place to deal with something God calls sin.  We try so hard to control sin, to manipulate it, to curve it, to cage it, to medicate it, to destroy it, and escape the consciences of it, but fail because in the end the truth is we are in bondage to this evil.    
The same is true with death we try so hard to run from it.  We exercise, take vitamins, wear seatbelts, buy cars with airbags, drink special water, take whatever pill the doctor tells us to, just to keep ourselves as far from death as possible, but we cannot break away from death’s grasp. 
The good news is that God loves us enough to rescue us, to save us, from this dictator called sin.  In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul wrote, “God made Him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. “  Or in other words be saved, be rescued, be made right or as the Bible puts it, be reconciled to God and become the people we were created to be.  To actually realize and live out the big questions of “why am I here and what is my purpose in this world?”  To become a “new creation!”
These people, who are asking questions, might not understand what sin truly is.  Remember when I taught you about God’s law, not man’s law that is put in place to control sin, but God’s law that was given to reveal sin for what it really is.  Remember when I explained God’s moral law was given as a means of coming to know and love God and to see how far we have fallen in our sin:
Some people use God’s moral law as a checklist or a to- do list.  They are trying to manipulate the all knowing God of the universe; by thinking they can obligate Him in to giving them eternal favors by their moral acts.  This is a mistaken way of looking at the laws of God because as I have studied the moral commands of God I hear Him saying something completely different than that:
·         1st I want to be in an exclusive relationship with you.  I don’t want you flirting with other things that can rule and ruin your life.  I want to be number one / the only One in your life.
·         2nd I don’t want you to make statues of me or try to make images that represent me because I understand you and know that you will began to worship the picture rather than the real deal.
·         3rd I do not want you to use my name as a curse word or I do not want you use my name as a means to sell your ideas and your agendas.
·         4th I know that you will want to work and become too busy so I want you to take one day to rest and stop working.  And focus on me.
·         5th I have given you a family as a blessing and as a picture of how you and I are to be in a relationship, so respect and honor you parents because it will teach you how to respect and  honor me.
·         6th Do not kill one another  but learn to love each other and to forgive those who hurt you, just as I will forgive you, when you come to me and ask for forgiveness, in faith.
·         7th Do not cheat on your spouse because this destroys relationships and the family that I have given you.  Not even in your heart because this is where the actions really begin.
·         8th Do not take what is not yours.  This hurts people and keeps you from contentment in me – Trust in me, I will provide all that you will need.
·         9th Don’t get caught up in lying to others, it leads to bondage and masks and pushes you away from me because you know that you are not living the way you should.
·         10th Be content in me and your joy will be full.  Keep me as the center of you affections and you will not want what is not yours.
Yet, as we see the heart of God, reveled to us here, we know that we fail miserably to come close to this standard.  This falling short or breaking of God’s moral law is called sin.  We stand condemned under this law.  Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4-7 “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, Abba, Father, so you are no longer a slave, but a son, and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.”
 As we put our faith in God and He declares us righteous by what Jesus did for us on the cross we can become His kids and live our lives as heirs knowing our inheritance is coming.  Our lives can glorify God only when we stop trying to be righteous and let Jesus be our righteousness for us.  What I find very ironic is the more we try to focus on morality or righteousness and be good people, it’s like quick sand, the harder we try the quicker we fail.  This is because this “quick sand” is called self-righteousness or pride and God cannot have anything to do with such an evil thing.
As we learn to love Jesus more and more He tells us we are to obey him out of a heart of love not duty or legalism, because those who love him will do what he says.   
Let me use an everyday example that is easy to understand: I know for me that the more I fall in love with my wife the more I want that relationship to be right.  Whenever there is something wrong I work hard to figure out what it is and how I can make it right.  In the same way when I am at peace with Jesus, on good speaking terms and we have no sin barriers between us I have a sense of peace and know that my relationship with God is good.  This brings me great joy and the ability to face everyday life with courage and boldness because of the assurance I have in that relationship.   In contrast, if there is something wrong, if I have not spoken to Jesus in a while, sin has crept into my life, or a self-righteousness has begin to rule my heart, then I feel distance, the peace is gone and I know that I am not right with God and I need to repent and bring reconciliation between Jesus and me. 
That is the gospel, the good news!  We need to keep the main thing the main thing and not let anything else get in the way!  That main thing, is Jesus!  It is Jesus that sets us free from the slavery of sin and death.  So we must be diligent to not lose this freedom we have been given by letting other things get in the way. 
If we are honest with ourselves and with each other we can admit that it is easy to get passionate about something and forget about Jesus.  We can find ourselves chasing  good things like evangelism, healing, children’s ministry, church buildings, programs, morality, scripture memorization, baptism, theology, eschatology, philosophy, you get the idea.  But people can be passionately chasing these things right into hell.  There will be plenty of people who have handed out gospel tracks in hell, people who want to build huge churches there, people who have memorized countless scripture verses, people who have been baptized, people who are great theologians, people who are moral, you could find all of them separated from God in hell.  But you know who you won’t find there? Someone who loves Jesus. 
How is this impossible task of loving the creator of the universe even possible?  Even if we come to know Jesus and love Him, put our faith in Him and turn from our sins, we still have the problem that we cannot be a Christian by trying harder!  There is nothing inside of me that gives me the capability to please God on my own!  Not to mention who I truly am at the core of my heart!  Evil! 
Rob Lacey put it this way in his book called “The Word on the Street:”
My advice? Tune into God’s Spirit; let him run the show – and your dark side won’t get a look in.  Your dark side wants what God’s Spirit hates and vice versa. … If your dark side’s in charge, this is you: you’re a twisted, filthy old letch, with only sex on the brain.  You waste hours on the latest craze to have seduced you, sometimes just worthless, sometimes full-on demonic.  You’re hateful, argumentative, jealous angry.  You’re a drunk, a pervert, all “me, me, me”.  You’re an ultra-competitive back – stabber, a stirrer, a divide-and-conquer control freak who dies inside every time someone else makes it.  … But if God’s Spirit is in charge, then this is you: you’re loving, alive, vibrant, sparkling.  You’re calm; you walk into a room and friction walks out.  You can handle delays; you’re not pushy.  You’re generous with money, with time, with people.  You’re good and solid, always ready to help.  You don’t double-cross people; you don’t use your fist in anger; you don’t lose your cool – you’re in control.  You’re never in trouble with the police.  That’s you!  You’re connected with the Liberator, Jesus and you’ve murdered your dark side with its “must have” attitude. 
The point is that our only hope to live reconciled to God and to people is surrendering our lives to the will of God’s Spirit!  There is no other way!
One last thought before we close the book on Galatians – this Christian life we are called to live by grace, though faith in Christ, surrendered to the Holy Spirit is meant to be lived out in community with other Christians.  A thing we happen to call church!  You are not alone and never will be!
Grace and peace to you
Your Pastor, Jason Neal

A Galatians style letter I wrote to Journey Fellowship

I am writing to you as a type of warning and encouragement-- to press on with passion and courage to our ultimate goal as Christians of being reconciled to the Father through His Son and by the power of His Spirit. 
I write this letter to you as your pastor, applying the truths of the book of Galatians to Journey Fellowship.  As your pastor, called by God to shepherd you through the wasteland of legalism, self help and life enhancement religion, I take the task of typing this letter seriously.  I pray that I would not misrepresent the grace and truth we find in the Word of God, but at the same time help you to grasp the dangers of being deceived by this false light religion, to which the world has become accustomed. 
In America, I see the church compromising and turning from the grace we find in Christ to a false gospel that leads to slavery and death.  We laid the foundations of Journey Fellowship in grace - let’s keep it that way, not turning to this outward-appearance, TV-performance, self- seeking, cold-hearted faith.  
As a pastor called by God, I honor the purpose of my ministry to love the church He has given to me.  This love that He has put in the fiber of my soul is a love that casts out the fear of what people may think of the message I have been called to give to you. 
This message, the gospel that I have been teaching you for the last year, is not a mamby-pamby gospel like that which is being spread like dandelions in a lawn by weak so-called preachers. 
I remember how God got this message through my thick scull so many years ago when I saw how dead religion really was while growing up in a church where outward performance was everything.  As the seeds of faith died in my heart I ran from the church and from God as fast as I could.  The longing to find my value and desire to quench my thirst for love, joy, and peace drove me down the party highway, leading me to hell on earth and a collision course with eternal damnation.  God rescued me from that accident-waiting-to-happen by His grace alone, through me putting my faith in Him alone.  What a beautiful mixture of unexplainable joy and painful sorrow of learning to die to my prideful self.  A process the Bible calls sanctification, being made holy, into the image of Christ. 
I remember how I would be taught by trial and error that surrender is the way to the grace offered by Jesus Christ our Lord.  As I would find victory in my faith for a fleeting moment, God in His omniscience would allow me freewill to pridefully walk in my own strength… once again failing.   I recall when I had come to the end of my own rope, if you will, of trying to live a life of performance, a life lived for my own gain, an un-surrendered life where I had professed Jesus as my savior but had failed to make Him my Lord.  At that time I decided that I had nothing to lose because I had already tried to live a godly life and had succeeded in appearance alone, so I surrendered to the Grace of God in wild abandonment.  Trusting in the God who is good and worthy of my trust, worthy of my faith, and capable of being the best insurance I would ever need. 
Over the years of ministry I have found many people who try to exchange the grace of God for their own agenda of watered down truth or performance based dead faith.  I remember one time a woman in Ohio tried to change the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone-to one of: look good to the world, everything goes, Jesus is just one-of-the-ways religion.  I ended up opposing her face-to-face in the heart of reconciliation.  I have also run into men who claim to be friends but in the end are wolves in sheep’s clothing trying to change the gospel of grace to one of performance.  Saying things like, “You’re only in the family of God if you get baptized, speak in tongues, share your faith with a certain amount of people, claim a certain political group, participate in our pet social movement, take the Lord’s Supper in a specific way,” and the list could go on and on.
But the Bible says that a person is not justified by good works, but through faith in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, we are to put our faith in Christ Jesus [to the end] that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by doing good deeds or works--by those things no one will ever be justified.
I know that you understand this because you and I both have tried to ease our consciences by being “good people” and have found that this is a vain practice.  The harder we try to be good the more we realize it doesn’t work.   This became more evident to me when I tried to create a Biblical checklist religion as a means to please the God of this universe.  Read my bible, go to church, and pray, give a tenth of my income (you get the idea) - the checklist could go on and on and on, but the reality is God is not looking for a son who tries to manipulate his way in to His good graces!  God is looking for a passionate love covenant that cannot be contained within a system of values or cold religious traditions!
If I, after experiencing the true life only found in abiding in Christ, try to love Him by stale works, I rebuild the life I turned away from in the beginning.  This leads to the million dollar question – how can anyone be in a right relationship with God, if we are not supposed to try harder to accomplish it?!  Eugene Peterson put it this way in his interpretation of what Paul wrote in Galatians 2:
“I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God and it didn’t work.  So I quit being a ‘law man’ so that I could be God’s man.  Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it.  I identified myself completely with him.  Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ.  My ego is no longer central.  It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you and have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God.  Christ lives in me.  The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.  I am not going to go back on that.”
Or out of the New International Version of the Bible:
“I have been crucified with Christ AND I NO LONGER LIVE, BUT Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” 
In other words, this Christian life is lived in surrender to the power of God to be lived out through me rather than in my own gifts and strength.
This true gospel-living was so important to who we are as Journey Fellowship that we called a leaders’ meeting to discuss these very subjects so as to lay our foundation—as a baby church—on the solid rock of grace.  We talked about the many temptations we face as a church that is just starting out.  Like the temptation to sell our souls to the next great “church growth movement,” trying to become a church we were never called to be.  Or the enticement of trying to compete with the world and entertain people rather than do the simple things of sharing the power of God’s Word, loving people, prayer, and fellowship.  Or the lure to defend and justify our existence to the world around us rather than remembering that we are accountable only to God.  Or the appeal to start programs for this cause, for this need, for that need, for this group of people or that group of people, instead of remembering we are a cell church that started in the home and that the only programs we need are in the home!  Or the evil desire to serve out of a heart of duty (legalism!) rather than out of a heart of love. At the conclusion of the meeting, our leaders agreed to say “yes” to duties within the church ONLY IF WE COULD AGREE TO DO SO WITH A HEART OF LOVE AND PEACE… and not to satisfy some momentary wave of guilt.
We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by the world and tempted to change who we are.  Remember from the very beginning I made it clear what was the most important thing for Journey: love God and love people.  Our church is called to do that by the patterns we see laid out by the first church who, in Acts 2, devoted themselves to the study of scripture, to worshiping together as a large church and in homes, praying with each other, caring for each other, living in harmony in spite of their differences, and as a result, people’s lives where transformed and the church grew in real authentic ways, not artificial fake growth that we see in these outward-appearance based churches. 
We have to remember our own roots; we started in my own home having fun, playfully worshiping God, fellowshipping together, encouraging each other, and we sensed the smile of God on the planting of Journey Fellowship.  We started that first year working out who we were and what we would be about-, defining the core of our beliefs as a church, trying to understand what Journey Fellowship’s mission would be.  We adopted the war cry that God had put in my heart years before when He began to call me to plant a church:  “Church done different!”  If God really wanted me to plant a church, I knew He was calling me to do it differently.  We then found our mission: “Extending the kingdom of God one community at a time.”  We felt called to keep church simple as well as different.  To reach lost people through authentic community—the kind of community which they can easily and comfortably access… in peoples’ homes, at cell groups that we call Journey Groups.
The next step was to define our core values: To be worshipers of our loving Creator, to have authentic community, to be a missional church, to be centered on prayer, to see transformation through Journey Groups, to be grounded in God’s Word, to exist not only for ourselves but for the lost, and to be a community that loves.
As we have been preaching through the book of Galatians this last year we discovered another core value which I believe we need to add: to be a church permeated by grace. 
As we have been preaching through the book of Galatians this last year we discovered another core value which I believe we need to add: to be a church that is permeated with grace.  This is an important core value to guard against falling into the devil’s traps of becoming a church where following the rules and checking off duties replaces the passionate love we have for Jesus our Lord.  That is a death sentence for a church.
The only lifeline God has ever thrown to mankind is faith.  Not an empty faith that is blind and dead but one of trusting in the savior of this world – Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Grace and Peace to You,
 Your Pastor, Jason Neal