Community

Plans to Prosper You: Not What You Think

A new inmate is terrified at his surroundings and when the lights go out, the terror hits home. And all he can do is scream out, “I don’t belong here. Not me. There’s been a terrible mistake.” This is a scene from the classic movie, Shawshank Redemption. “I don’t belong here...There’s been a terrible mistake.” These are sentiments that many of us know deeply in our hearts. “This marriage wasn’t what I thought it would be, but divorced, I don’t belong here.” “This job seemed so promising, but now I can’t find the energy to make it to work; there must have been some mistake.” “My children seem so distant, and act as if I don’t exist; this can’t be happening to me.” When moments are bleak many find solace in turning to quotes and proverbs for inspiration. One of the most popular phrases that people love to turn to is this one from Jeremiah 29:11, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’.” This is truly an encouraging phrase, and the even better news is that it actually means something different than what we expect; something far better than we could imagine.

To understand the greater meaning of this phrase we need to do a brief history of Israel. The purpose of Israel, the people of God, was to be a nation that would receive the blessing of God and then, in turn, bless all nations. The prime location for this to take place was the promised land. Israel was delivered out of slavery in Egypt and was given the promised land. The promised land was located at the intersection of several major trade routes of the ancient world. Israel was to be in the promised land living under God’s rule and receiving and giving the blessing of God to others; this was to be a win-win situation for everyone. But Israel doesn’t obey God, doesn’t seek to be a blessing to the other nations, and so God removes them from this promised land.

The people of Israel literally know that they don’t belong “here,” outside of the land that God promised them. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. They are to be in the promised land. While they are in exile they get a letter from the prophet Jeremiah who has some words for them. Part of his letter has the inspiring quote, “For I know the plans I have for you…” but before that Jeremiah has shocking advice for them. He writes, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” This is shocking because God is telling them not to wallow and wish for some miracle way back to the promised land; he is saying to make this place the promised land. When God later says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” It’s the same word that is used earlier for seeking the “peace and prosperity” of the city. God wants them to have peace, and it comes as they seek the peace of their “new” city.

For Cobblestone Church, this is to be the guiding light in our current reality. I’m sure there are plenty of times when we look around and think that this isn’t what it is supposed to be. In these moments we are to seek the peace and prosperity of our community however we can for it is in the community's peace that we find our own. This is why we do things like community groups - to create space for each other and others to experience a safe place to explore and grow in the faith. This is why we built a memorial play set - in memory of past loved ones, and as a gift to the community for the peace and prosperity of families all around.

For those seeking and exploring the faith we invite you to join us in this journey. If you find yourself at a place where you feel like you don’t belong, know that you belong here because Jesus Christ, who didn’t belong on a cross, chose to endure it out of his deep love for you and me, for your peace and my own.

Community

Some of the three hardest words to say as an adult are ‘I don’t know.’ We never want to appear like we are in over our heads or that we are not as smart as we appear, and for a whole slew of other reasons, we just don’t like to say these three words. Well, I’m going to buck this trend and say them now. I don’t know. I don’t know what it will take for Rotterdam and Schenectady to become places where all people are excited to live, where crime is insignificant, where every child is getting a good education, and where people are experiencing a healthy life and community. I don’t know what it will take for Cobblestone Church to be a completely healthy and vibrant church serving the needs of our members and our community. I don’t know exactly what needs to happen in your life for you to be someone who has peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control to a higher degree than you currently do. I don’t know. I do know that for any of that to happen we need to be in better relationships with one another. For Rotterdam/Schenectady to be a better place, for Cobblestone to be a better church, and for you to be a better you, we all need to be in better community together.

For you to grow as a person - to be that better you, to have more of the fruit of the Spirit - you need to be in a more intentional community. This is true for two reasons. First, we are primarily changed by people we are in relationship with. Social science has shown us that most of our beliefs and actions as individuals are not based on our rational thinking, but based on our relationships. Second, we have been created for community. One facet of being made in the image of God is that we, like the triune God, are built for relationships (or connectivity as it is sometimes called today). Even kids’ songs get this as they sing, “The more we get together… the happier we’ll be.”

For Cobblestone Church to be a more healthy and vibrant church we need to continue to have better relationships with one another. Again, this is true for two reasons. First, Jesus prays to the Father for his followers in John’s Gospel and says, “May they [the disciples] be one in us so that the world may believe that you sent me.” The number one way for the disciples to show the world that Jesus was sent into this world by God is their oneness, their unity. Christian teacher Francis Schaeffer spoke similar words to the Christian Church at a global conference, “There is a tradition that the world said about the Christians in the Early Church, ‘Behold, how they love each other.’” And he also said, “[People] should see in the church a bold alternative to the way modern [humanity] treat people as animals and machines today. There should be something so different [seen in the church] that they will listen, something so different it will commend the Gospel to them.” Second, you can’t be a Christian in isolation. In the New Testament we are called to love one another, honor one another, forgive one another, bear one another’s burdens, and so on. A church isn’t a church if it isn’t providing opportunities for people to live in a community in order to carry out these commands and these commands cannot be carried out only in a Sunday morning worship service.

For Rotterdam/Schenectady to be a better place we need church communities who both care for the greater area in tangible ways and provide environments for personal growth for all. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” The Church is to be a place where people are transformed, and then these transformed people change the community and the world.

This is why we offer Community Groups at Cobblestone. These groups intersect at the place where we care for one another and care for the surrounding world. (For details about these groups click here). The prophet Jeremiah spoke long ago, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” We are to seek the peace, welfare, and good of the city, and in its peace we will find our peace. I don’t know exactly how we can seek the welfare of this area, but I know it will at least involve us being in better community and relationship with one another.

 

You Can Do Anything, Just Not Everything

The best investment of your money in the stock market from 1972 to 2002 would not have been in Microsoft, GE, Intel, or IBM. It would have been in Southwest Airlines. The impressiveness of this feat by an airline company cannot be overstated. The airline industry is heavily impacted by the most inconsistent of forces, mother nature. Just in the last 30 days in America there have been almost 30,000 cancellations, and yet, somehow Southwest has consistently made a good profit for over thirty years. Most people say that their success comes from the fact that they are very clear about who they are and what services they will provide, and who they are not and what services they will not provide. Southwest understands what is so hard for churches and individuals to understand, which is that to do anything truly worthwhile, you must say no to a lot of things and invest heavily in what is important.

Southwest deliberately chooses only to fly to a few destinations, and they do not have first-class seats, and you cannot buy meals on their planes. They do all of this to keep costs of tickets down. Southwest’s success has led to other companies trying to emulate some of their practices. Continental Airlines tried to create something similar called Continental Lite. This failed miserable (costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars, and the CEO his job) because they only adapted few of Southwest practices and didn’t fully change the way they did business. They did what is known in the business world as “straddling.” They tried to be a discount airline and a regular airline at the same time, and you just cannot do that. You cannot partially invest your energy in two different directions and get good results; this is true in business and in life.

In his Gospel, Matthew records a series of parables that Jesus gave concerning the Kingdom of heaven/God. At one point Jesus says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all that he had and bought the field” (Matthew 13:44). The claim of Jesus and Christianity is that the gift of being in the kingdom is so much greater than any other thing that we possess. The more that we receive this gift the more that God’s spirit empowers us to be fruitful people in the world. These fruits that are to overflow and pour out of us are love, joy, peace, and patience, along with many others.

The reality of these fruits of the Spirit is that they are the result of being in God, of our saying no to certain things so that we can say yes to important things. I wrote last month that four pillars of an individual Christian’s life are personal prayer/morality, doing social justice, being in an intimate community, and practicing mellowness of heart and spirit. To do these things it takes time and energy, but they are the type of investments that make life meaningful, and in fact, Scripture claims that this is what we were created to do. When we survey our life and notice an absence of these fruits our response should not be simply to “try harder,” but to realize that what has happened is that we have lost our way, that we have begun to make other activities or desires a priority above and beyond what we were created to do by God.

The purpose of these Cobblestone Community Groups is to help each other more fully experience the gift of the kingdom of God that we may be people marked by the fruits of the spirit. These groups are not going to be perfect; they probably will not magically make your life better, but they are one of the simplest things that we can do to invest in something that is truly important. For some, the only way to be in on of these groups involves saying no to something else. Know that your leaders will do what they can to ensure that you are making a worthwhile investment.

For those of you who are skeptical of these groups I want you to simply try them for a few months and see how it goes. Each group is scheduled to meet 8 times between now and Christmas. If you give a group a try and decide it isn't worthwhile, then you can stop attending, but I think you’ll be surprised at how powerfully God works in and through a handful of people who are investing in the lives of each other and serving those outside of their day-to-day community.  

Why Cobblestone Community Groups?

Home Improvement, Full House, Family Matters, Friends, Modern Family, Downton Abbey, Big Bang Theory, and Parenthood are stories centered around extended families that are typically biologically connected. Our obsession with these shows reflects our desire to be in a similar community. Even television shows that focus more on action and drama are held together by the cast of characters that act as an extended family. From the perspective of Scripture Christians explain this desire as part of our design of being created as image bearers of God.

As we get ready as a church to launch community groups for the first time it is important to know just why we need them. I think the simplest answer is twofold. 1. God created us to be in community and 2. God works best through community.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image...’”(Genesis 1:26). This simple sentence has become a cornerstone to multiple aspects of the Christian faith. There is a hint of the Triune nature of God. That God is three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that they mutually indwell with each other, while still being separate persons. Since humans are created in the image of this God, then it follows that humans would have a strong compulsion to be in relationship with each other. This is affirmed in almost everyone’s experience, and is reiterated in Genesis chapter two when it is made clear that it is not good for Adam to be alone.  

Lesslie Newbigin makes the profound observation, “It is significant that what our Lord left behind was not a book, a creed, a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.” God has chosen throughout history to use communities to come into relationship with him and to be his agents of renewal and change in the world.

Now some may wonder if there is a need to make smaller community groups, when the church is already a community. To answer this question it is helpful to see how Jesus led. We see that sometimes he did his teaching to the masses (think the Beatitudes and the feeding of the 5,000), other times he taught just the 12, and other times he worked with just 3 disciples.

Also, smaller sized groups do the following better than large church settings. These groups can...

  • Foster closer relationships, especially with and for those who are new to the church, by praying for one another, and creating an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust.

  • More easily notice if one member is in need of any particular assistance that the group can provide, as well as deliver more personal encouragement and accountability.

  • Help people tangibly live out their faith instead of just hearing more preaching/teaching

  • Encourage better learning because in a smaller group everyone is expected to contribute, which is also helpful for those exploring Christianity.

Engage will be a key word about these Community Groups. They will be a group of people who engage with each other through conversation, friendship, and prayer, engage with God through worship, prayer, and Scripture, and engage the world through prayer and acts of service. The ultimate hope is that by participating in these groups, people would have their lives enriched, and that they would enrich the lives of others outside of their community.

I simply want to encourage all who are physically able to join one of these groups to do so. Imagine being in a community that met regularly, that was filled with people who were willing and eager to share their life with you and to have you share your life with them, while at the same time doing acts of service for our community.

Even for those of you who are still considering what Christianity means to you, these groups will be the best place for you to get a picture of Christianity. Being a Christian is much more than making some abstract mental ascent. Christianity is the true story of the whole world, that God has begun restoring the broken creation through the redemption of Jesus Christ, and invites us to be participants in that story.