Thursday, August 25, 2016

Treasures in Heaven

Right around the turn of the century – when we youth pastored the greatest group of kids you’ll ever meet – a tall, awkward, hyper young man made an indelible mark on All Access Youth Ministries. He vibrated with constant energy; a never-ending source of ridiculous stories, spot-on impersonations, hilarious accents and outrageous antics.  

While it’s closing in on almost two decades ago, I can remember like yesterday, squeezing into a full elevator during Youth Convention. Suddenly, I feel something large and heavy on my shoulder. He placed a large, lifelike rubber spider on my shoulder. I freak out a little. A lot. My physical reaction may or may not slam him hard into the wall – which causes the elevator to lurch to a stop. Of course, the passengers erupt into screams. I sigh heavily thinking that we’d be trapped there for hours (it was already 3 o’clock in the morning), and that I was being punished for all the things I’d done wrong in my life. Thankfully, the elevator groans back to life only moments later.

We enjoyed full and exciting years of youth ministry with this young man. Then, one day, he introduced us to a young lady he met at work. I first became truly acquainted with her on yet another weekend retreat. Late one night, a group of us girls wound down the events of the day in our hotel room. She sat cross-legged on the edge of the bed as we chatted. At one point, she became so animated in telling a story that she completely somersaulted backward off the bed – meanwhile flailing her arms and legs and long, long curly hair. I still giggle when I think of it.

 I loved those “kids.” Those kids grew up, got married and answered the call of God.

I was in awe, admiration and thankfulness to God for his faithfulness that I sat next to the two of them at lunch last Sunday and watched them converse effortlessly in Mandarin Chinese with two exchange students. From my vantage point, the conversation seemed easy and rich – and generous. It would’ve been simple for them to just selfishly enjoy lunch with old friends. But they used the opportunity to be generous with their time, their words, and their God.

I watched the natural overflow of the message Geoff had spoken to our Freedom Family last Sunday. He was truly practicing what he had preached. As I watched them so graciously give to those students, I was reminded of the words he spoke on Sunday to our Freedom family.

 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Luke 12:21

Geoff talked about what it means to be rich, or “generous” towards God. When we are generous with our time, talents, words, creativity, physical bodies and our silent times, we glorify God. We aren’t storing things up for ourselves. We’re pointing to Him. We’re magnifying eternity with our perspective of the present.

Since Sunday, I have been intensely evaluating the ways I can be generous toward God:

With my time

More often that I care to admit, I waste time. I spend too much time on Facebook and Instagram. I binge watch Netflix. How can I utilize that time more effectively in magnifying eternity?

With my talents

I’m really good at planning and organizing. But often, I wait till the last minute or I don’t distribute and delegate well. How can I use my planning and organization skills to orchestrate ways to point people to Jesus?

With my words

I am not generous enough with my words. In fact, I’m pretty stingy with them. Sometimes, I know I should encourage someone or speak life into a situation. But I just don’t. I think it’s because I’m afraid that a full-blown conversation that I just don’t have the emotional wherewithal to have will ensue (it’s an introvert thing). Lord, help me offer life-giving encouragement on a regular basis whatever the cost.

With my creativity

I write. But sometimes writing and sharing it with the world scares me because people generally feel very free to criticize the creativity of others. I don’t like that. But my creativity can be a way to show someone eternity with Christ. That’s worth any amount of criticism I may receive.

With my physical body

I don’t like to exert myself. I hate sweating. Therefore, I am out of shape and tire easily. How much more could I accomplish for the Lord if I’d just get myself a little more physically fit? What’s a half hour earlier in the morning for a run on the treadmill in light of someone’s eternity?

With my silent times

 Introverts covet their silent times. On my commute to and from work I want to be entertained and numbed by the music and podcasts I listen to. But am I being generous toward God with those times?

So, to that tall, gangly kid who, on the aforementioned retreat (right before the fake spider incident), rolled up the huge floor mat and pretended it was a giant cigar (and knocked over a garbage can in the process – he left that out of the story on Sunday), I say “thank you.” Thank for reminding me to magnify Christ with my generosity toward God and others. You did so powerfully last Sunday with your words; but even more so with your actions. 

Written by: Jaime Hlavin
Edited by: Tamara Sturdivant

Friday, August 19, 2016

Steps- Part 5

In my lifetime, I have witnessed Christians pull out all the stops in the name of evangelizing. Thousand dollar lights, highly skilled musicians, massive, stadium-style events with nationally renowned speakers, entire carnivals, huge giveaways, and Starbucks gift cards galore. We LOVE finding ways to make church the hottest thing around, in hopes that our hospitality and enthusiasm will draw those around us into meeting with Jesus.  

I’m not knocking these strategies. I think it’s an incredible thing when people come together to invest into the lost as a way of reaching out. However, I think in our daily lives, we overlook an opportunity for ministry with just as incredible of a shock factor. That thing is grace.

I’ve come to learn over the past few years that no one expects grace anymore. In a high-demand world with a rapidly growing “look out for yourself because no one else will” mentality, grace is a foreign concept. Not only is it unexpected to give it, but also to receive it. The idea that I can mess up or wrong another and receive grace for it sounds like something out of a sermon because that is the only place we hear that idea anymore. Though it can emotionally be tempting not to do so, meeting the failings of those around you with the same grace God provides to us every single day catches our culture off guard, and grabs the attention of their hearts.

Working in the service industry, I can tell you that mistakes met with humanity that looks you in the eyes and extends compassion beyond a “victim’s” capacity can change the course of an entire day. It’s a breath of relief. These people officially have my attention, my interest, and my openness to listen to what they have to say. And that’s only over a couple dollars of food. Imagine receiving the same grace over something serious: a betrayal, a bad attitude, or a personal conflict. To have someone’s attention, interest, and willingness to hear what you have to say because of the place of safety you have created is to have them in the perfect spot to hear the gospel. It’s like a free sample. You think me having mercy on you for bumping my car is great? You should try permanent grace over everything you do forever. It’s fantastic.

On Sunday, Pastor Aaron shared the final part in the story of Joseph. The manner in which Joseph handles the final reconciliation with his brothers is a perfect model of the grace with which God wants us to be able to extend to others. The dignity of keeping it between those involved (“Make everyone go out from me,Genesis 45:1), the very real vulnerability and intimacy of the moment (“Come near to me please,Genesis 45:4), and the humanity displayed by Joseph in relating himself to those that betrayed him as family (“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt,Genesis 45:4) show a value for Joseph’s brothers as whole, complete individuals and not simply as categories, or occasions in time. The end result, as we know, being peace and unity as Joseph is laid to rest by those who once betrayed him.

This week, I pray you all take stock of your own attitudes and reactions to those in your life. Let us not seek to be justified, but to be extraordinary, and to use grace to grab the attention of the hearts we come into contact with. 

Written by: Brianna Vanderveen
Edited by: Tamara Sturdivant

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Doorstep and Lamplight

I encountered the wrath of God on a doorstep facing Gratiot Avenue at 12:29 am.

The time was memorable because my first shift was starting in one minute as a volunteer for MCREST, the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team that hosts the homeless in various churches of the county. I was trying to find my “shape,” or my ministry specialty at here Freedom Christian, and a friend told me where to come get a sense of the program. I was trying several doors to find the right building entrance, when I approached one where an overhead lamp wasn’t working and found a man sleeping by the door.

He looked like a dog curled up at the foot of his master’s bed, throwing a coat under his head and trying to be comfortable. I had already read up on the statistics of mental illness rates in this population, and since this was the women and children’s shelter, it was not a good sign that a man was lingering out here. So I didn’t engage him, and reported it to the other volunteers when I came inside. They weren’t aware of him, but I was told that families often enter the program together but cannot be admitted at the same time. Men and women are admitted and housed separately, for safety reasons, and if a wife gets a bed before her husband he has to fend for himself until an opening comes.

I couldn’t shake the sleeping guy from my mind. I want to say one of the volunteers I relieved might have taken some bread or a small bag of crackers out to him, but memory is tricky and I can’t vouch for that. Since the women and children in the building were asleep for most of my shift, I kept picturing a man sleeping there, as close as he could be to the family he could not take care of anymore, with no one but the Lord to care about him.

I often tell people on the MCREST team that Jesus takes this kind of ministry seriously – in fact, he takes it personally. In Matthew 25:41-45 we get an account of Him talking to the people who didn’t help the downcast, and he is not just mildly clucking his tongue and wishing they had done a little better. No, instead he says,

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, and I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ And He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

I used to think this passage was just an admonition to believers not to get complacent in your faith – not to become afterglow lunch Christians, who socialize and exchange favors without facing the needs outside your church doors, when you should “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And the Matthew passage does work that way. But it’s more, I’m convinced of it. We get to see how strongly he feels for and identifies with those to whom society ascribes no value. I don’t need to put myself into that man’s place, because Jesus has already done it. Even now, when I can’t drum up volunteers or one of the programs I participate in runs out of money, I can picture Jesus sitting on a doorstep, half visible in rim light from one of the exterior lamps, watching over man 34 (when there is a 33-bed capacity in the men’s shelter) at 12:29 am.

Maybe he will be out there tonight. Standing watch. Feeling heartbroken. Maybe cracking a smile as He remembers when this man was a child and his mind was a little clearer, or when times weren’t so hard, while he studied a box turtle one of his brothers had fetched from the creek – the little critter always makes his head and flippers go in and out through the same holes in his shell, and never messes that up. Then thinking about the long path from that day to this one. Simmering about the calloused ex-coworker from this man’s old job who wouldn’t take his wife and kid in when things started going bad.  Because charity begins at home, don’t you know, and she didn’t want her family to become “part of this guy’s issues.” Raging about every other church on this block who has more time for a building fund bake sale, or a craft fair, than to figure out where this man can sleep, or if he’s hungry or cold. Taking all of this very personally, because when we don’t have time for the least of these, we don’t have time for Him.

I am not a fire and brimstone guy. As Christians go I’m in more danger of being called a sensualist than a legalist, and I generally think wrath of God sermons are highly theatrical and bring only a temporary repentance. But my perspective is different now.  I don’t know about you, but I kind of like this wrathful Jesus, sitting stalwart in the lamplight and caring enough to cry and rage and plead for help.

I once heard a college ministry pastor at the Faholo Conference Center in Grass Lake preach that God’s wrath only burns against the things that become a barrier to God’s love. When I picture him there on the doorstep I can see that. There's something beautiful about that kind of wrath, and it makes me love Him even more. Let’s just hope that the next time He’s sitting out stewing by the lamplight, He’s not thinking about you or me. 

Written by: Chad Halcom

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Steps- Part 3

We live in a culture consumed by instant gratification. When we want something, we certainly don’t want to wait for it.

I distinctly remember a day in Sunday school when my teacher, for some reason, decided to use the “marshmallow test” as part of her lesson. If you are unfamiliar with this experiment, the objective is essentially to give each child a marshmallow and tell them to wait to eat it, with the promised incentive of an additional marshmallow for waiting patiently. My teacher asked us to hold onto our marshmallows throughout her entire lesson, waiting till she had finished teaching to eat it. The reality is, although I succeeded in not eating my marshmallow, I could not tell you a single thing she said that day because all I was thinking about was eating the marshmallow.

The reason I share this story is because sometimes, I think even as adults, we can fall into the trap of fixating on a specific goal or desire. Although having goals and desires can be a good thing, it becomes a problem when we become blinded to all that is happening around us. While, in my marshmallow example, I simply missed out on what the teacher had to say, the repercussions of fixating on a desire in the grand scheme of life have the potential to be much more detrimental. When we become so consumed with seeing the end of a trial, or reaching a big goal, we run the risk of missing an opportunity to be a part of what God may be doing in that moment.

Over the past few weeks, we have been studying the story of Joseph. Long story short, Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, and had 11 brothers who were very resentful towards him. He had a gift from God to interpret dreams, and jealousy of this gift was one of the many contributing factors that led his brothers to sell him into slavery. During his time in slavery, it would have been a natural response for Joseph to fixate on coming home, meanwhile disregarding anything else that may have been going on in other people’s lives around him. What is so interesting, however, is Joseph remained faithful AND attentive to the Holy Spirit in this long-term delay of returning home.

In particular, the story we touched on this Sunday about Joseph just blows me away.  In Genesis 40, we find Joseph in prison with a few other people who have close relations to the king: one who was the king’s chief cupbearer, and the other who was the king’s chief baker. One night, both of these men had memorable dreams. By faith, Joseph declares that God has the power to provide an interpretation, then shares what he believes God meant through the dreams (Genesis 40:8). Through all of this, Joseph is given an opportunity to capture the king’s attention by his prophetic interpretation of the dreams, particularly through the cupbearer who was soon-to-be released from prison. However, this hope of getting the king’s attention (with the eventual goal of being released from prison) was contingent on the participation and concern from a third party—in this case, the cupbearer.

The unfortunate reality is, the cupbearer did not remember Joseph after he was released from prison (Genesis 40:23). In fact, it is not until two whole years later when Pharaoh asks for a dream interpretation that the cupbearer remembers Joseph (Genesis 41:9). Can you imagine faithfully serving the Lord, then having to wait two years in prison to be released? That makes my marshmallow feat look pretty pathetic!

What is so remarkable about the story, however, is how it ends. When Pharaoh asks Joseph if he can interpret dreams, his response reflects a consistency in his character. Although he may have been getting a little impatient, he still responds with the humble statement, “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires,” (Genesis 41:16).

I think we can all learn something from Joseph and this major delay he experienced. Joseph had a great hope of returning home. Certainly, being in prison for two years and interpreting dreams were not on his agenda. Nevertheless, he allowed God to use him in this challenging time. Furthermore, he gave God all the credit.

Are you currently waiting on God for something? If so, I encourage you fix your eyes on Him. Do not become so distracted by your end-goal that you lose sight of all that God is doing around you. Whether we realize it or not, God has our best interest in mind. Therefore, let us be willing to be used by God, even when circumstances don't go as planned.

Written by: Tamara Sturdivant

Friday, July 29, 2016

Love Week 2016

If you’ve attended Freedom for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Let’s change the world from Sterling Heights and Washington Township.”

It’s a nice phrase, isn’t it? But what does it really mean? To me? To you?

We are in the middle of Love Week 2016, and if you’re currently participating in the opportunities to serve, our hope is that you’re able to answer those questions.

Shortly after Aaron and I accepted the pastorate here at Freedom, we attended a conference where the keynote speaker asked, “If the doors of your church closed today, would your community even notice?”

Those words sank deep into our hearts as we began to expand the vision of Freedom to show the love of Christ and HIS Church beyond our four walls. God was calling Freedom to make a difference in our community.

I love to see this continue to come to fruition as I watch the people I love so much carve hours and days out of their busy schedules, take time off of work and step way out of their areas of comfort to serve others without any expectation of receiving anything in return.

If you’re new to Freedom and don’t fully “get the hype” of Love Week – or even if you’re not new to Freedom – and you haven’t taken the opportunity to find an area to serve, can I encourage you to just show up to at least one and see how your friends are involved in changing the world via our community? You’ll be convinced.

Young and old (I have an 8 year old and a 12 year old who both have been involved in serving in various areas.) Introvert and extrovert. Physically fit and (ahem) not-so-physically fit (talking to myself, here). There’s room for you.
Please, don’t miss out on the opportunity to partner with God as we work to change the world from Sterling Heights and Washington Township. I can’t wait to serve alongside you.

The night before Love Week commenced, a friend of mine posted this quote on social media. I felt that it was a fitting sentiment for the upcoming days:

“You can’t be a world changer until you serve. And you can’t serve until you break free of your comfort zone.” – Ann Voskamp

The week’s not over yet. Let’s get out there and change the world together.

Written by: Jaime Hlavin
Edited by: De Ann Sturdivant

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Questioning God

Have you ever had an “Are you serious, God?” moment? More specifically, have you ever felt God calling you to do something, when a million questions popped into your head about the logistics and repercussions that could come about for doing what He asked? As much as I’d like to believe I have always wholly trusted God in the things He has called me to, I know that has not always been the case. Often times, I have found myself thinking, “Really God? You want me to do that?” The good news is, the Bible is full of many great followers of God who also had to learn how to trust in Him.

This past Sunday, we focused on the story of Moses. In Exodus 3:10, God gives Moses the responsibility of leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Considering the sheer gravity of the task God had given, in addition to  the fact that Moses was already in late adulthood and lacked the ability to speak eloquently, it’s not surprising that he had a few questions to ask God first. While Moses certainly had faith, he still had more to learn about trusting God. Likewise, we may also learn from Moses’ example.

In this passage of scripture, Moses asks what seem to be very logical questions: 1. What makes him relevant to fulfilling this call (Exodus 3:11), 2. How does he know it was really the one and true God speaking to him (Exodus 3:13), 3. How will he prove to the Israelites that God gave him this call (Exodus 4:1), and 4. How will he possibly take on this extremely big task (Exodus 4:10)? I love that Moses asks these questions because it gives me hope in times when I have doubts about God’s call on my life.

Moreover, I love God’s response to Moses’ questions. He doesn’t just give Moses a call, then leave him hanging. Rather, God responds to Moses with the reassurance and confirmation he needed to move forward. He tells Moses that He will walk alongside him (Exodus 3:12) and equip him with all of the skills and abilities he needs (Exodus 4:11). Furthermore, God gives clear signs that not only confirm His power to Moses, but may also prove His hand in Moses’ mission to the Israelites (Exodus 4:2-5).

This story only marks the beginning of Moses’ journey of learning to trust God. Throughout Exodus, there are many more instances that he has to trust God for the impossible, as opposed to trying to understand the “logical.”

In the same sense, you and I may learn from this story that sometimes, it’s okay to ask God questions! Verifying that God, and not someone else, is the one speaking is a healthy practice that may allow us to better understand His character.

Beyond the questions, however, we may learn from Moses’ example that sometimes, we must trust God without being given all the details. As God’s word in this passage proves, He promises to walk with us and equip us to fulfill His purpose. Likewise, when we are genuinely given a call from the Lord, whether it be something simple or huge, He will not fail us. He will guide us and prepare us to fulfill His purpose. However, we must be willing to let go and trust in Him.

So, the next time you are having an “Are you serious, God?” moment, I challenge you to set aside your human understanding. While it is certainly no simple task, when we surrender our trust to God, He can use us to do incredible things. 

Written by: Tamara Sturdivant
Edited by: Jenelle Kelly

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Where Do You Live?

Being a Christian is not a right.

One more time.

Being a Christian is not a right.

WHAT?! I know, it's tough to believe. We live in a country with freedom of religion, so we're pretty used to it being a right. And we are fiercely protective of that.

But to sanction faith to the confines of something that is simply "a" right, "a" piece of you, "a" part of your life is perhaps the problem. The term Christianity itself has lulled us into the mindset that it is one of many religions, instead of a term being used to describe one who is seeking the supernatural and perfect relationship with our Creator. It is not simply a belief system, but living life in truth, through the deep-seeded desire to see eternity that the Bible says God has placed in each of us. It exists beyond all other labels and constructions of our mind. 

Therefore, it cannot be relegated simply to being a part of our American identity. It is not a side benefit to citizenship of a nation. Rather than being a part of our identity as an American citizen, it is a separate identity as a citizen of Heaven, as pastor Randy spoke of Sunday. The two coexist, and we decide which one we let affect the other. 

With these two identities we hold, we are given authority by God to be not just citizens, but ambassadors. It is our duty to usher in the atmosphere of Heaven to meet earth when we come together in prayer and in worship. Whether it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, committing ourselves to the will of God, or standing in unity that precedes all other earthly boundaries, we must decide as Christians to allow our citizenship in Heaven to be our strongest loyalty, as an ambassador's strongest loyalties are to that of their home country. This does not necessarily mean there will always be dissension between the two--our biggest responsibility is simply being a representative of the love of Christ here. However, if situations arise that put our American identity at odds with our identity in Christ, we must again decide which will affect which.

Across the world, ambassadors of Christ have made the decision. Though the countries they are in stand in direct opposition to their home in Heaven, they remain in Christ. But not only do they remain in Christ, they step beyond the embassy; beyond the safe group of other Christians and church communities and into the risk of punishment under the law of the place they are in for the sake of others; for the sake of their identity as a citizen of heaven. As Pastor Randy said on Sunday, they know their rights, and when their Heavenly authority does not match their earthly right, they accept the consequences for doing good that this entails, however unfair. They know which will stand for eternity. Being a child of God outlasts government. It outlasts persecution. It outlasts election seasons. It has outlasted every culture that has approached it since the beginning of time. 

So in this politically charged, uncertain, and unstable point in our history as a nation, I encourage you to remain. Remain in your foremost identity as a child of God and allow the knowledge that no man or woman can ever change who God is be a comfort, as well as a point of unity in the body of Christ.

Written by: Brianna Vanderveen
Edited by: Tamara Sturdivant