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More Lessons from Layla

By Shannon Laning

Matthew 21 (NASB)

My daughter, Layla, turned one the week (read her story here). I’ve been reminiscing on all we’ve been through this last year: 53 day NICU stay, 3 major surgeries, 10 smaller procedures, months of physical and speech (for feeding) therapy. Couched in between each of those stats is the countless list of ways that God has showed up for us.

As the list of what I’ve learned this year continues to grow, I am emboldened to tell others about what God has done. You’d think this would be easy for a woman who’s been a Christian for almost 30 years. But, since my natural bent is to not offend or make others uncomfortable, my boldness for Jesus has been masked by fear of what others might think. The minute that Layla was taken from my arms and loaded onto a helicopter to be flown 100 miles away the night she was born, something in me shifted.

Stuck in a hospital bed with my 4-pound newborn taken from me, I felt my desperation turn to prayer. I could tangibly feel the power that night. Something in my subconscious said, “Be bold, because your baby can’t be.” I began to tell any nurse or doctor that came in the room about Layla and how we needed God right then.

In the NICU, I found that the more I talked about Jesus, the more others wanted to talk about Him as well!

What does this all have to do with Matthew 21? Jesus is more intentional in His behavior and speech. We see Him boldly entering into Jerusalem while crowds proclaim Him to be, “Hosanna, Son of David, He who comes in the name of the Lord.” He overthrows the tables of money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He harshly criticizes the Pharisees and predicts the acceptance of Gentiles (whom Jews hated) into God’s family. His boldness seems to know no bounds; Jesus is always harsh toward the religious leaders and truthful with the crowds. But it’s that “truthful” part that I sometimes miss out on.

Since my goal should be to emulate Christ in everything that I do, I want to be more and more like Him by boldly proclaiming His goodness and grace to others. Layla has taught me a lot this year, but I never want to lose the sense of urgency that I have felt to let others know why Jesus is so good.

What is Prayer?

by Ashlee Dunn

 

What does prayer mean to you? Is it a spiritual discipline? A gift? A calling? Is it a box to check off each day, or is it your life’s blood?

There isn’t just one way to describe prayer, but I can tell you what it isn’t. Prayer is not meant to be a wishlist, a way to manipulate God or others, boring, or just for certain people.

So what is prayer, then? I like to think of it as talking with God. It’s sharing everything with Him and expecting to hear from Him. Through prayer, we can know and do God’s will and view all our experiences as shared with Him. I like what Richard Foster says of prayer: “To pray is to change…In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to will the things He wills.”

If you had told me 18 months ago that God was about to change my life through prayer, I would have shrugged it off as a strange thought, and I for sure wouldn’t have prayed about it. In September of 2017 God gently yet firmly let me know through a series of conversations with Him that my perception about prayer was wrong: sinful. I was greatly humbled by this painful awakening, and after confessing and repenting my next response was, “Jesus, please teach me about prayer.” He graciously gave me more than I could have asked or thought. As I took baby steps of obedience and surrender, He gave me personal lessons on how to gain His wisdom, abide in Him, and have more of Him. And for the first time in 20 years of walking with Him, I desired these things above everything else in my life.

At that point, I was two years into an already life-altering inward spiritual journey that was forged in deep grief. Through those two years, I had begged God for more of Him and His nearness and clung with white knuckles to this promise: “The righteous cry and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted; He saves those who are crushed in spirit.” -Psalm 34:17-18

 I began pleading for His wisdom, and He gave (and continues giving) it freely…

“But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” -James 1:5

And I discovered what true abiding is…

“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…and if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” -John 8:31-32, 36

Today as I daily seek to abide in Christ, I find myself craving and sacrificing for more focused time with Him. Throughout the gospels, I see Jesus frequently going “off to a lonely place” to be with the Father, and I understand why: it is where spiritual blessings abound. I have also been training my mind to (as my favorite monk Brother Lawrence calls it) “practice the presence of God” throughout the day. Although I fail often, it has become something I never want to stop striving for.

I encourage everyone to seek more of God through prayer. Not sure where to begin? Do as the disciples did and ask Jesus how He wants you to pray. (Remember, James 1:5 tells us He will give wisdom generously to those who ask!) God will use His Word and the Holy Spirit to teach you. Shift your focus from yourself, your shortcomings, or your past onto God (Isaiah 26:3), and expect to hear from Him (John 16:13-14, 1 Cor. 2:9-13).

 

Need ideas to put into practice?

Come to Wednesday Night Worship and Prayer time (7 PM in the sanctuary). Try a morning and/or evening devotional that focuses on gratitude and praise. Start a prayer journal, recording everything from requests to laments to answers you get to see on this side of heaven. Make prayer cards and pray through 3-4 each day. Have a family prayer time and teach your children to join you. Everyone can put Romans 12:1-2 into action by practicing the presence of God throughout your day. You can do this by asking yourself, “Does this activity/conversation lead me to God?”

God desires a deep relationship with you. And believe me, you want it too! It was those who followed closest to Jesus, truly seeking and abiding in Him, who received the deeper things, the most intimacy, and the fullest joy. The benefits of orienting your life around God through prayer are endless and far outweigh the sacrifices and growing pains that come with a life being continually transformed by Him.

The Eleventh Hour

By Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 20 (NASB)

“And about the eleventh hour [the owner of the vineyard] went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’” (Matthew 20: 6-7)

The “eleventh hour” is one of those idioms that feels like it has always existed in public consciousness. Seriously, hop on Wikipedia for two seconds and just see how many movies, books, shows, songs and albums use it as their title. And with good reason. It’s a great phrase that projects a sense of drama and suspense. (And if it was good enough for all them, you better believe it was good enough to be the title of this blog post too.)

I had never really considered it to be a religious phrase. In fact, I usually think of it in the context of a last minute agreement between opposing government parties before a looming deadline, or a dramatic rescue from a building seconds before the roof caved in. Or the kind of miracle the creators of Fyre Festival seemed to think would somehow magically occur as their ill-fated luxury music weekend loomed.

But it originates in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, a story told by Jesus that is unique to the book of Matthew. What I find most interesting is what we have retained about the essence of “the eleventh hour” in popular sentiment – an undercurrent of heroism, or of near disaster averted at the last possible moment.

That’s not exactly how we Christians usually view those eleventh-hour joiners in Jesus’ parable, is it? It was a story originally intended for the disciples, setting the reader up to empathize with the viewpoint of those early-morning laborers, who get paid the agreed upon price, yet still feel this sense of frustration that the people who only worked one hour are also being paid a full day’s wage.

We focus on the chastening component of it, and the reminder that making comparisons and grumbling is NOT a Kingdom-focused attitude.

But this is one of those rare cases where I also love what culture has held onto from this parable over time: the heroic, last-minute rescue. It focuses on the most beautiful and grace-filled part of the parable, as the landowner is still actively seeking out and drawing in people to his vineyard even in the final hour. The landowner graciously chooses to give payment far beyond what their eleventh-hour labor deserves. It is indeed a rescue story. It is our rescue story!

Even though I often relate most to those earlier workers – working to heed the warning not to draw comparisons or pass judgment against other laborers – I want the grace and mercy of God to come shining through first and foremost from this parable to the culture at large.

And it’s incredible to think of all the pastors and preachers and readers of Scripture in ages past who so clearly communicated this aspect of Jesus’s parable in Matthew 20 – so much so that the heroism in God’s desire to continue rescuing people to the very last possible moment managed to make it through the gradual secularization of the phrase. It’s a point of connection that I am glad to draw attention to with those who don’t believe in Jesus.

“Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:14-15)

May our eyes not be envious, but instead celebrate the generosity of our Rescuer, who continues to make room for anyone who will come, no matter how late the hour.

Convictions of Steel

1 Thessalonians 1 (MSG)

 

“It is clear to us, friends, that God not only loves you very much but also has put His hand on you for something special. When the Message we preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. Something happened to you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.”

The Thessalonians experienced a Message that changed the course of their lives forever. It wasn’t the words that Paul, Silas, and Timothy spoke that gave them power, but the Spirit behind and in the words that emboldened these believers to live in freedom and truth.

Take a moment and pray these words over you, your family, our church family, and the community.

Father, I thank you for your steadfast love and grace. I ask Your Holy Spirit to speak life into our hearts and minds. Provide us with opportunities to speak that same life into the hearts and minds of others. May you strengthen our convictions as that of iron smelted into steel. May we always be imitators of you. Use us so that we may bring glory to Your name. Fill us with the joy of the Holy Spirit that we may endure every hardship according to your Word.

Steady your thoughts on things above and be lifted up. God has something special for you. Be still and listen.

Do you need a prayer partner? Contact our prayer team here. We have prayer warriors willing to fight with you in battle.

Into His Arms

Matthew 19 (NASB)

In this week’s Scripture, Jesus tells His disciples to “let the little children come to Me.” Imagine for a moment that you are busy with the day’s routine tasks when you hear that Jesus is passing through your village. You cannot miss this opportunity. You scoop up your young toddler, push you’re way through the crowd, and make it close enough for the disciples catch on to your plan and tell you to stay back.

But then, Jesus.

Jesus sees you, invites you near, lays His hands on the child, and offers a prayer. Wouldn’t you love to have the opportunity to present your child to the Christ?

You do.

Women, we have spiritual access to God and the right to request spiritual blessings for the lives under our care. Our words can be words that speak God’s blessings into children’s lives and into their HEARTS. Do you know how impactful that is? Instead of trying to control circumstances, why not ask God to bless their circumstances (time in the nursery, first day of school, a play date, a new job, a new relationship); whatever they may be.

Prayer is a mighty mother’s tool to scoop up her child, of any age or size, and place that precious one into the arms of a loving savior.  Does this change the way you think about praying for your child?

The Heart and the Head

Why is children’s ministry such a big deal? C.S. Lewis said, “God wants a child’s heart and a grown-up’s head.” This thought captures it all! 

Being a part of children’s ministry gives us the opportunity to invest in a child’s life in the time they have the biggest imagination and the clearest eyes to see who God is before all of the adult stuff of life kicks in. 

It also gives us adults the opportunity to be children in our hearts again. As we walk with children while they learn about the Creator, we can experience the awe and wonder anew as God reveals Himself to both child and adult. Some of my biggest “AH HA!” moments have been teaching young kids the most basic of lessons! 

Some would say it is our duty to participate in children’s ministry, often pointing out Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child up in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.” While this is undoubtedly true, it has a compulsory aspect in a communal setting that seems more appropriate to an individual pursuit in the home by parents.

Children’s ministry in the church should supplement the parent’s effort at home. It should be structured in a way that the volunteerism is carried out by adults that see the benefit in investing in our children. 

Studies have shown that for the most part, what a child accepts about God, Satan, good and evil, etc. as they enter adolescence is what they will die believing. In the best case, we are partnering with parents to help give a solid foundation to our children to provide them with as much information as possible to choose to follow God as they continue to mature. 

In a less ideal situation, the church may be the only place a young child ever hears about the love of God, in which case it is all the more important for children’s ministry to be staffed by adults that genuinely care about participating in children’s spiritual growth. 

At the end of the day, Midland Bible Church can only have a successful children’s ministry that invests in these aspects of a child’s spiritual development if we have enough volunteers willing to jump into the mix with a child’s heart and a grown-up head. Where do you see yourself fitting in? Where do YOU want to serve?

Touched by an Angel

by Shannon Laning

Matthew 17:14-18:35

As Jesus gets approaches the cross, we see shift in the urgency of his teaching. He seems more intense than before. I believe He senses his imminent and impending fate.

Chapter 18 begins with the disciples highlighting their humanity by asking Jesus who will be the greatest in the kingdom? Honestly, if I had just spent a ton of time with the gift of healing and ministering to all kinds of people, I think that my pride would be bursting from my body. Jesus doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t even sternly rebuke them. Instead, He turns upside down their thinking of what is great by saying that childlike faith is great. This is encouraging. Jesus isn’t looking for everyone to be Billy Graham. He wants us to take the gifts and abilities we’ve been given, lay them down before Him, and ask Him what to do with all of it. And then do it.

One thing that strikes me about Jesus is how he elevates the status woman and children in a culture that devalued them. Think about it, the fact that Jesus even talked to the Canaanite woman is astounding. She was a woman, not a Jew, and lived in a pagan party town. All of those things gave men in that day enough reason to ignore her. And now we see Jesus expressing love and affection for children. “Children should be seen and not heard.” Jesus didn’t think so.

“Take heed that you do not despise the little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 18:10). This is likely where the idea of “guardian angels” comes from, and while I don’t know for sure if each person has a guardian angel, I do believe that angels are around us. The Bible even says that we should be kind to strangers because in doing so we may have unknowingly been in the presence of an angel. How cool is that? Do you think you’ve ever met an angel? Well, I have. I know that might sound a little hokey to you, but let me lay out the evidence and you can decide for yourself what you think. Know this though; there is an entire spiritual universe that we can’t see.

Years ago, maybe even 20, my family and I were vacationing in the nation’s capital. Not only did we get to sit through a session of Congress where Michael (my younger brother) fell asleep, but we saw landmarks and historical sights that I had only read about. I was and am a history nerd; the entire experience was enthralling.

As a native west Texas family who felt that 10 minutes equates to a “long drive across town,” let’s just say that taking public transportation wasn’t the norm. One day in DC, my dad herded us toward a subway only to yell, “Not this one!” as my little brother, Michael, stepped into “this one.” The doors closed behind him, whisking him off to who-knows-where in one of the biggest cities on the eastern seaboard. My mom broke into hysterics as my dad ordered us to stay put while he alerted subway officials. Not 45 seconds later, Michael was walking back to us with a man in an expensive trench coat who simply said, “Here he is.” We grabbed Michael and turned to thank the man, but he vanished. My dad went to find him, describing him to people, and no one had seen him.

That man was an angel. I think we spend too much time explaining away miracles with medicine, science, common sense, etc. We think that it might seem weird to say the supernatural interacts with the natural world. But if we truly believe that Jesus is who He said He was and did what He said He did, then the supernatural is always with us. Regardless of what side of the argument you are on, can we just all agree with this: God is a loving Father, angels are real, and we are in desperate need of saving on a daily basis. I am so thankful we serve a God who elevates the status of women and children, intimately knows our needs, and rescues us from disaster. In Michael’s case, He just used a well dressed man to do it.

The Gift and the Prize

2 Timothy 2-3

Acceptance from God is something He freely gives to those who believe. God’s acceptance is unconditional. The free gift of being born again into God’s family is something that is simply received.  There is no after-action required.  Nothing we can do is bad enough to make Jesus’ death on the cross insufficient to cover all our sins.

 

The Gift

“The gift and calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:29) Nothing can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand. Every sin was nailed to the cross, including sins of believers after they were born again. Every believer will receive the GIFT, and spend eternity with Jesus, no matter what their behavior is.  The Prodigal’s Father never stopped loving his son; he was always his child. This parable of Jesus illustrates the love of our Heavenly Father.

 

This great truth is hammered home by the A and A’ points of the chiasm in 2 Tim 2:11-13:

A If we die with Him we will live with Him

A ‘ If we are faithless, He is faithful.  He cannot deny Himself.

 

A tells us that if we believe in Jesus, and are baptized into His death, then we will live with Him forever.  Nothing is included here about subsequent behavior. A’ underscores that point: if we are faithless to God, He is still faithful to us. Why? Because we are “in Christ.”  His Spirit dwells within us.  If God rejected us after placing us into His body, He would be rejecting His own body.

 

The Prize

The PRIZE is conditional upon obedience. That is what Paul emphasizes to Timothy. Timothy has been faithful to this point.  But Paul wants him to understand that to win the PRIZE you have to finish well.

 

The B and B’ parts of 2 Tim 2:11-13 chiasm make this point (the center of the chiasm being the main point):

B If we endure, we will reign with Him

B ‘ If we deny Him, He will deny us.

 

If we want to gain the PRIZE of reigning with Jesus, sharing His throne, we must first endure.  If we deny Jesus in this life, He will deny us the PRIZE of reigning.  If we deny Jesus in the way we live, we will be ashamed.

 

We saw the men and women in 2 Timothy 3 who pursued their own pleasures and pride. They were disapproved concerning the faith, not rejected. God does not reject His children. Acceptance is unconditional. But disobedience makes us disapproved. Someone who is disapproved will lose rewards.

Something Worth Dying For

Paul is gladly giving his life to win the PRIZE and exhorts his key disciple to do so.  The shame of being disapproved by God is not something that only affects us in the next life, however. The consequences, or wages, of sin, is death or destruction.

 

Timothy called us to repentance, for our own benefit. We want to experience the best life now, and the greatest reward when we are approved at the Judgment Seat of Christ. But Timothy called us to repentance not out of a fear of rejection, but out of the security of knowing we are accepted. Because we know we are accepted and God wants our best, we can admit our faults.  He will not condemn us; He wants to help us, to grow and prosper us.

 

So let’s admit our 2 Timothy 3 faults. Let us embrace the reality of our flesh, admit it, ask for help from God and brothers and sisters, and let’s get better.

 

The PRIZE of life is something we can gain each day. The abundant life is available for all who will receive it through the obedience of faith.  But it requires putting to death the flesh. That is hard.  It requires the humility of repentance.  But we can do so joyfully, knowing we have a loving Shepherd, a benevolent Father, a faithful Husband who accepts us completely.  “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”

Diligent in Faith

Scripture: 2 Timothy 2:1-6

 

Paul opened his letter to Timothy with a call to continue his endeavors in the Gospel–he is passing the baton.

In chapter two, he continues to equip Timothy to stay strong despite hardship and trials. He uses three different analogies:

No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops.

The first is that of a soldier and the relationship he has with his commanding officer. Roman military men took their jobs on as a way of life. Nothing delayed the completion of a task ordered by their superior.

His second analogy is of an athlete competing for the victor’s crown. As Olympic athletes entered a competition, there were rules that had to be followed both before and during the events. Athletes had to swear upon training adamantly for ten months before a game to even qualify to compete. Beyond physical training, every athletic event had its own set of rules that had to be maintained so that you didn’t get disqualified. Any competitor lacking the self-discipline to know and follow the rules would lose any chance of wearing the crown.

Paul’s final analogy says the farmer ought to be the first the receive his share. At first glance, you may read this as merely a gift for all the hard work; however, “ought” is a keyword. The farmer only gets first pick when and if he finishes strong. He’s tilled, sowed, and maintained throughout and when he remains attentive to his fields, he is highly rewarded with the best crop.

What each of these has in common is diligence. The definition according to dictionary.com is: constant in effort to accomplish something; attentive and persistent in doing anything. The soldier’s focus remains steadfastly on his commander to life or death. The athlete is persistent in his training-pushing himself to the limit physically and preparing his mind mentally. The farmer keeps vigil on his fields for any possible danger to his crop and as he knows the exact day and time for peak harvest.

How do we remain diligent in pursuit of Jesus Christ as Lord? It’s not an easy task. It consists of denying self and enduring the cross alongside Him. We train our hearts and minds on His love and His word. We keep our eyes peeled for false witness and prepare for the harvest.

Sometimes the thought of such diligence can be daunting. It’s overwhelming to wear the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s important to remind ourselves we are not the ones bearing the load. If you revisit the beginning of this chapter, Paul begins by telling Timothy, “You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ.” The strength we have to endure is a divine gift.

If you find you have taken on too heavy of a burden, lay it all down at the cross. Pray for God to renew your strength. We have members of our prayer team and a vast array of resources to come alongside you as we walk this narrow road together.

Two Ways I Hurt People, According to Matthew

By Kalyn Stralow

Matthew 16:13-17:13 (NASB)

 

Is this a safe place to talk about my failings? I’m going to assume it is as we’re in the second semester of The Table, and I can be completely honest with you all.

I have VERY little natural empathy for most of the day-to-day struggles that people around me are facing. I’m a fan of the “buck up, champ,” suffer-in-silence mentality. Because in light of the staggering scale of human injustice and suffering, the daily hardships and complaints I am exposed to often seem kind of….trite.

And isn’t that such a gross, self-gratifying way of rationalizing my lack of compassion? To frame it as if I am just so aware of the Really Big Issues that I don’t have the space for anyone’s smaller problem?

Frankly, the way that lack of empathy manifests itself in me is ugly, and it’s embarrassing to have you know I can be like this. Not to mention it’s downright toxic to both the people I interact with and to my own mental state. I’m not admiring grit or supporting loftier values – and it’s absolutely not edifying  – when I’m internally eye-rolling at people’s struggles just because they might be lower on the suffering scale than what another human is facing.

I’ve been aware of this tendency of mine for years. And, in general, I thank God that He is often able to show His love for people through this personal failing of mine. Because whenever I do respond with empathy to others, it’s purely Him acting through me and to His glory.

The Lord nudged me to confront this part of my nature again when reading and preparing for this week. As I was reading Matthew 16:21-28, and then in discussion with women from The Table, God used this interaction between Jesus and Peter to reveal two specific truths that I needed to confront in my life:

Overcorrecting to something positive (yet insincere or without basis in truth) is not a better approach to empathy (v21-23).

When Jesus is preparing His disciples for His upcoming suffering and death, Peter’s immediate reaction is to say “Never. This will not happen to you.” He is offering…reassurance? Comfort? Optimism? Denial? Probably a bit of each. But he is also making a meaningless claim in the name of comfort and support that has no basis in truth and is actually detrimental to Jesus.

In that way you see your own faults clearly in others, I recognized the way Peter was extending a false verse of empathy that I am often guilty of:

“No, I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”

“Everything will turn out great.”

“You are doing the best you can. It’s not your fault.”

I often say these types of things in an attempt to correct for my natural inclination. I want to sound supportive and empathetic, whether or not there is ANY validity to my words. That’s not constructive or helpful. It’s simply a platitude that, at best, accomplishes nothing. At worst, it could tempt the person down the wrong path, bolstered by a misplaced sense of support or confidence.

My attitude is contributing to the fallacy that your suffering has to be on the level of the persecuted church or an abuse victim in order to truly be “taking up your cross.”

As we were preparing for this week’s message, the topic of suffering for the Gospel was discussed, and the many cultural and traditional expectations that have been overlaid on these verses. And intellectually, I hold the belief that a person does not have to be a literal martyr to be bearing their cross for the sake of Jesus.

Yet my lack of empathy for the so-called minor suffering of others? That communicates the opposite message! It was never my willful intention to contribute to holding up that viewpoint, but I was doing it all the same. Ouch.

Thank God that His word is constantly active – and He uses it to reveal new things I need to confront. And forgive me, friends, for the times when my empathy has rung false, or I have upheld this false metric for comparing our “worthiness” in suffering. I want to be better. And I want to reflect Jesus, not the Peter of Matthew 16:22.

Love you all. Praying that He also reveals the exact truths that you need to be confronted with this week.