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A New Community

My friend Carrie’s five-year-old daughter, Maija, has an interesting approach to playtime. She loves mixing together dolls from different playsets to come up with a new community. In the world of her imagination, everything belongs together. These are her people. She believes they are happiest when they’re together, despite being different sizes and shapes.

Her creativity reminds me of God’s purpose for the church. On the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). Though these people were from different cultures and spoke different languages, the Holy Spirit’s arrival made them a new community: the church. From then on, they would be considered one body, unified by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The leaders of this new group were a group of men Jesus brought together during His time on earth—His disciples. If Jesus hadn’t united them, more than likely they would never have come together. And now more people—“about three thousand” (2:41)—had become Christ-followers. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this once divided group “had everything in common” (v. 44). They were willing to share what they had with each other.

The Holy Spirit continues to bridge the gaps between people groups. We might not always get along, nor readily understand one another. But as believers in Christ, we belong together.

Posted on 19 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Even If

Sometimes life deals us a tremendous blow. Other times the miraculous happens.

Three young men, captives in Babylon, stood in front of the fearsome king of that land and boldly proclaimed that under no circumstances would they worship the giant image of gold towering above them. Together they declared: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know . . . we will not . . . worship the image” (Daniel 3:16–18).

These three men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—were hurled into the fiery furnace; and God miraculously delivered them so that not a hair of their head was singed and their clothing was smoke-free (vv. 19–27). They had been prepared to die but their trust in God was unwavering—“even if” He had not saved them.

God desires that we cling to Him—even if our loved one isn’t healed, even if we lose our job, even if we are persecuted. Sometimes God rescues us from danger in this life, and sometimes He doesn’t. But the truth we can hold firmly is this: “The God we serve is able,” loves us, and is with us in every fiery trial, every even if.

 

Posted on 18 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Overflowing

“No! No! No! NO!” I screamed. It didn’t help. Not one bit. My brilliant solution for our plugged problem—flushing again—accomplished exactly the opposite of what I’d intended. I knew I had made a mistake the second I pushed the lever down. And I stood helplessly as water overflowed.

How many times have our kids tried to pour milk and misjudged the process, with white liquid flowing everywhere. Or maybe we failed to remember that a two-liter bottle of soda just rolled around in the trunk … with explosively startling results.

No, spills are almost never a good thing. But there might be just one exception. The apostle Paul uses that image, overflowing, to describe a people so full of God’s Spirit that what naturally spills out of them is hope (Romans 15:13). I love that picture, of being filled to the brim with joy, peace, and faith because of His power-full presence in our lives. So much so, in fact, that we can’t help but exude and express winsome confidence in our heavenly Father. That might be during the beautiful, sunny seasons of our lives. Or when the proverbial cup of our lives gets jostled. Either way, what sloshes out over the top is life-giving hope to those around us who are “drenched” by it.

Posted on 17 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Praising God’s Goodness

Someone in our Bible-study group suggested, “Let’s write our own psalms!” Initially, some protested that they didn’t have the flair for writing, but after some encouragement everyone wrote a moving poetic song narrating how God had been working in their lives. Out of trials, protection, provision, and even pain and tears came enduring messages that gave our psalms fascinating themes. Like Psalm 136, each psalm revealed the truth that God’s love endures forever. 

We all have a story to tell about God’s love—whether we write or sing or tell it. For some, our experiences may be dramatic or intense—like the writer of Psalm 136 who recounted how God delivered His people from captivity and conquered His enemies (vv. 10–15). Others may simply describe God’s marvelous creation—“who by his understanding made the heavens . . . spread out the earth upon the waters . . . who made the great lights . . . the sun to govern the day . . . the moon and stars to govern the night” (vv. 5–9).

Remembering who God is and what He has done brings out praise and thanksgiving that glorifies Him. We can then “[speak] to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19) about the goodness of the Lord whose love endures forever! Turn your experience of God’s love into a praise song of your own and enjoy an overflow of His never-ending goodness. 

Posted on 16 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Free to Follow

My high school cross-country coach once advised me before a race, “Don’t try to be in the lead. The leaders almost always burn out too quickly.” Instead, he suggested I stay close behind the fastest runners. By letting them set the pace, I could conserve the mental and physical strength I’d need to finish the race well.

Leading can be exhausting; following can be freeing. Knowing this improved my running, but it took me a lot longer to realize how this applies to Christian discipleship. In my own life, I was prone to think being a believer in Jesus meant trying really hard. By pursuing my own exhausting expectations for what a Christian should be, I was inadvertently missing the joy and freedom found in simply following Him (John 8:32, 36).

But we weren’t meant to direct our own lives, and Jesus didn’t start a self-improvement program. Instead, He promised that in seeking Him we will find the rest we long for (Matthew 11:25–28). Unlike many other religious teachers’ emphasis on rigorous study of Scripture or an elaborate set of rules, Jesus taught that it’s simply through knowing Him that we know God (v. 27). In seeking Him, we find our heavy burdens lifted (vv. 28–30) and our lives transformed.

Because following Him, our gentle and humble Leader (v. 29), is never burdensome—it’s the way of hope and healing. Resting in His love, we are free.

Posted on 15 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

God at Work

“How have you seen God at work lately?” I asked some friends. One replied, “I see him at work as I read the Scriptures each morning; I see him at work as he helps me face each new day; I see him at work when I know that he has been with me every step of the way—I realize how he has helped me to face challenges while giving me joy.” I love his answer because it reflects how through God’s Word and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, God stays near to, and works in, those who love Him.

God working in His followers is a wonderful mystery that the writer to the Hebrews refers to as he draws his letter to a close in what’s known as a benediction: “. . . and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:21). With this conclusion, the writer reinforces the essential message of his letter—that God will equip His people to follow Him and that God will work in and through them for His glory.

The gift of God working in us can take us by surprise; perhaps we forgive someone who wrongs us or show patience to someone we find difficult. Our “God of peace” (v. 20) spreads His love and peace in and through us. How have you seen God at work lately?

Posted on 14 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Not What It Seems

“Listen!” my wife said to me over the phone. “There’s a monkey in our yard!” She held up the phone so I could hear. And yes, it sounded just like a monkey. Which is weird, because the nearest wild monkey was 2,000 miles away.

Later, my father-in-law burst our bubble. “That’s a barred owl,” he explained. Reality was not what it had seemed.

            When King Sennacherib’s armies had Judah’s King Hezekiah trapped inside Jerusalem’s walls, the Assyrians thought victory was theirs. Reality proved different. Although the Assyrian field commander used smooth words and pretended to speak for God, the Lord had His hand on His people.

“Have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the Lord?” the commander asked (2 Kings 18:25). As he tried to entice Jerusalem to surrender, he even said, “Choose life and not death!” (v. 32).

That sounds like something God would say. But the prophet Isaiah told them the true words of the Lord. “[Sennacherib] will not enter this city or shoot an arrow here,” God said. “I will defend this city and save it” (19:32–34; Isaiah 37:35). That very night “the angel of the Lord” destroyed the Assyrians (v. 35).

From time to time, we’ll encounter smooth-talking people who “advise” us while denying God’s power. That isn’t God’s voice. He speaks to us through His Word. He guides us with His Spirit. His hand is on those who follow Him, and He will never abandon us.

Posted on 13 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Treasure in Heaven

When I was growing up, my two sisters and I liked to sit side-by-side on top of my mother’s large cedar-lined chest. My mom kept our wool sweaters in it and handiwork that was embroidered or crocheted by my grandmother. She valued the contents of the chest and relied on the pungent odor of the cedar wood to discourage moths from destroying what was inside.

Most earthly possessions can easily be destroyed by insects, rust, or can even be stolen. Matthew 6 encourages us to place a special focus—not on things that have a limited lifespan—but those that have eternal value. When my mom died at fifty-seven, she had not accumulated a lot of earthly possessions, but I like to think about the treasure she stored up in heaven (vv. 19–20).

I recall how much she loved God and served Him in quiet ways: caring faithfully for her family, teaching children in Sunday school, befriending a woman abandoned by her husband, comforting a young mother who had lost her baby. And she prayed . . . . Even after she lost her sight and became confined to a wheelchair, she continued to love and pray for others.

Our real treasure isn’t measured in what we accumulate—but in what or whom we invest our time and our passions. What “treasures” are we storing up in heaven by serving and following Jesus?

Posted on 12 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Take the Time

Rima, a Syrian woman who had recently moved to the United States, tried to explain to her tutor with hand motions and limited English why she was upset. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she held up a beautifully arranged platter of fatayer (meat, cheese, and spinach pies) that she had made. Then she said, “One man,” and made a swishing sound as she pointed from the door to the living room and then back to the door. The tutor pieced together that several people from a nearby church were supposed to visit Rima and her family and bring Christmas gifts. But only one man had shown up. He had hurried in, dropped off the box of presents, and rushed out. He was busy taking care of a responsibility, while she and her family were lonely and longed for community and to share their fatayer with new friends.

Taking time for people is what Jesus was all about. He attended dinner parties, taught crowds, and took time for interaction with individuals. He even invited Himself to one man’s house. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, climbed a tree to see Him, and when Jesus looked up, He said, “Come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:1–9). And Zacchaeus’s life was changed forever.

Because of other responsibilities, we won’t always be able to spend the time. But when we do, we have a wonderful privilege of being with others and watching the Lord work through us.

Posted on 11 May 2018 | 8:00 pm

Persevering with Peace

As I continue trusting God through my struggles with chronic pain, even the simplest setback can feel like a fierce enemy attacker. Problem One jabs me from the right. Problem Two shoves me from behind. Problem Three punches me square in the nose. During these times, when my strength wanes and immediate relief evades me, running and hiding can seem like a good idea. But since I can’t escape my pain, change my circumstances, or ignore my emotions, I’m learning slowly to rely on God to carry me through.

When I need encouragement, comfort, and courage, I prayerfully read through the songs of the psalmists, who honestly bring their situations to God. In one of my favorite psalms, King David flees from Absalom, his son who wanted to kill him and take his kingdom. Though David lamented his painful situation (Psalm 3:1–2), he trusted God’s protection and expected Him to answer his prayers (vv. 3–4). The king didn’t lose sleep worrying or fearing what could happen, because he trusted God to sustain and save him (vv. 5–8).

Physical and emotional pain can often feel like aggressive adversaries. We may be tempted to give up or wish we could escape when we’re weary and can’t see the end of our current battle. But, like David, we can learn to trust that God will hold us up and help us rest in His constant and loving presence.

Posted on 10 May 2018 | 8:00 pm