Beauty for Ashes in Thousand Oaks

If there is one thing that will always make me cry, it’s when God shows his love in a specific way toward me. When I was planning my wedding, I fell in love with a song that perfectly captured this truth. I would listen to it on repeat and no matter how many times I heard it, it still moved me to tears. I decided to have my cousin sing it at our wedding. It opens with the phrase, “Its beauty for ashes now…”

That song, taken from Isaiah 61, illustrates the promise that God gives us a crown of beauty in exchange for our ashes. I have clung to this promise many times. When I’m in the thick of it, it’s always difficult to see how something beautiful can come out of the trial. However, the best part of having a “go-to” verse is the reminder of the last time I drew on that verse. This enables me to reflect on how God fulfilled that promise every time before.

As I sit here today, I am again holding onto Isaiah 61. In the past week, my community has been rattled; first by a mass shooting that took place down the road from our home. Then, just over 24 hours later, by a mass evacuation due to threatening wildfires. Our town now looks as physically broken and ominous as our hearts felt following the shooting.

Thankfully, our home was protected. But many were not.  Our hearts are heavy from the all-out assault that our community endured. I am not sure how, but I trust in my Father to fulfill his promise for Thousand Oaks. As I went back to read the verse again, I was again reminded of his specific love for me, I just needed to read a little further… to see the reference of the oak tree. It’s a little thing, but for me today, it was everything.

“to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called OAKS of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

Jesus himself quoted Isaiah 61 when he was here on earth. He knew that we would often need to be reminded of this beautiful truth. Today, if you are mourning, He is here to comfort you, to restore you, to give you beauty for ashes and fulfill this promise to you.

 

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Jaclyn Santiago is a wife to Mike and mother to two little girls, Berlyn (7) and Alyla (3). They actively attend the Agoura campus of the City Church. Jaclyn works part time in the field of marketing and also serves as a volunteer mediator for the Ventura County Small Claims Courts. She is passionate about uncovering truth and achieving reconciliation in the church, home and workplace.

California Coast Bible College

This past Sunday night, our incredible California Coast Bible College students graduated from their first and second year programs. It was a night to remember! These students are an incredible part of The City Church and we wanted to share some of their incredible experience with all of you. Many have contributed here on Beautiful Stories. Enjoy!

You’ll love this second semester recap video created by Pastor Debra Arnott, especially if you love The Greatest Showman!

For more about the CCBC experience, click here.

“I Can’t Hear You?”

A WILD Devotional

How can you believe in a God you can’t see?

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard that question floating around the subject of belief.  When pondering the question myself I figure– well God uses many forms of communication; He shows us He’s real by appealing to our other senses. Similarly, a blind person wouldn’t believe they exist in isolation just because they can’t see the environment around them, they will communicate and experience through other means and methods. But then Romans 10:17 crossed my mind;

“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (NKJV)

This brought up the question; what if you can’t hear God? For most people, the seed of their faith is planted when someone (or God Himself) tells them about the word and what He has for them. Most of the message taught encourages you in the fact that God wants to form a relationship with you, He wants to communicate with every one of us. And He does, as we read the Bible but in that book we also see a multitude of scenarios in which God spoke something into existence or spoke to people. So Christians and non- Christians alike get frustrated when they can’t ‘hear’ Gods voice about a. As a result, their trust may start to waver because God isn’t doing what He’s known to do, speak – but is speaking all there is?

Something I have learned on my walk is that God loves diversity and that encompasses varieties in communication. He loves to utilize the entirety of His creation, and that means He likes to speak through things like music, or nature and so much more! However, if I do ever slip into thinking that His silence equates to absence I must rely on faith -the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11 NKJV) and I encourage myself with the ending of Deuteronomy 31:6 (NKJV) “He will not leave nor forsake you” He never has and He never will.  Just like when you’re in a relationship (platonic or romantic) you learn how to enjoy each other’s presence in silence, or read between the lines of someone’s disposition- The more you develop your relationship with God, the more you can understand Him even in his silence, and the more you trust Him in your chaos. 

God loves you so much and wants that relationship so much that He sent Jesus to die on the cross. He is and He will communicate with you and help you to know what to do in life. If you want to experience more of that, join me in this prayer:

Jesus, I believe you want to speak with me both through the Bible and beyond. Open all of my senses to know how you are leading and directing my life. Amen.

IMG_0573Roniyah Shasanmi (pictured with her mom) is 19 years old and a native of Upper Norwood, England. She’a an artist and loves expressing her heart creatively. She’s currently studying cultural anthropology at community college. Roni has been attending the Agoura campus of The City Church for a couple of years. She loves serving on the worship team and in Generation Church.

Grandma’s Faith

I was thinking the other day about what it means to live big and the thought of legacy crossed my mind. I was thinking of my grandmother who passed a little over a year ago and what her life was about. She died right before Christmas and I traveled alone to Seattle to attend her memorial service just after the new year. She was ninety-six and had been looking forward to heaven for a little while.

As I sat in her service, her pastor, who was many years younger, began to tell stories of her life. My grandfather was a chaplain in a hospital and not always available to attend on Sundays. When they started attending this church after moving across the state (to be close to their grandchildren) she informed this pastor that she would be in church every week with or without my grandfather. And she was. He told how she started a group for Norwegian immigrant women and their daughters that grew from two to ten to over forty women. She was joyful and faithful and loved Jesus deeply. When we’d stay at her house for sleepovers, she would pray traditional prayers over us, like “Jesus Tender Shepherd Hear Me.” She’d play cheerful hymns on her piano at Christmas for all of the adult children and grandchildren who filled her home. Her joy filled my young life even in seasons of heartbreak. Her hair was white as snow and her face so full of wrinkles, but I always thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known. She left such a legacy for me.

When Tom and I were married, my grandparents began to intentionally pass things on. One day they gave me a photocopy of the front page of my grandmother’s Bible where my great-grandmother had written a precious note. It holds these words:

Dear Judith,

God’s word is our great heritage,

and it shall be ours forever;

to spread its light from age to age shall be our chief endeavor:

Through life it guides our way,

In death, it is our stay;

Lord grant, while words endure

To keep it’s teachings pure,

Throughout all generations.

With love from Mother, Christmas 1946

My great grandmother was a Norwegian immigrant whose own mother never spoke English. I can imagine her faith was required during many moments of her own life. All of these women in my family, including my own mother, shared the defining characteristic of bright, red hair. When I think of these women who joyfully passed down a passionate love for God’s word to their daughters, I am inspired to do the same. I’m so deeply grateful for this heritage, but I’m also well aware that there was a woman at some moment in my ancestry who was the first one to believe in Jesus. The fruit of her faith has outlived her!

Regardless of whether we have natural children, God puts in every feminine heart the power to nurture and love and care for those who need an inspiring word, a guiding hand, an example of strength and unwavering faith. When we receive the unbelievable, selfless love of Jesus, He puts so much in our hands to give and then He multiplies it beyond what we could imagine.

Maybe you’re the first in your family to believe in Jesus and become who He created you to be. Imagine the women many years from now who will look back and thank God for your faith! Maybe you’re discouraged and feel like your love for Jesus isn’t shared by your children. I’m praying today that God will show up and reveal Himself to each one of them. He has heard your prayers and treasured your tears. He will not give up on them!

Let me leave you with this picture from Psalm 78:6-7:

For perpetuity God’s ways will be passed down

from one generation to the next, even to those not yet born.

In this way, every generation will have a living faith in the laws of life

and will never forget the faithful ways of God.

Jesus, we pray you would use us to be vehicles of your love and your truth to the next generation. We pray our faith would extend beyond ourselves and into the lives of many, many others. We pray we would pass on a legacy of faithfulness and life to everyone we meet. We love you Jesus!

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Power and Love

I pray that from his glorious unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down in God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how log, how high and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  –Ephesians 3:16-20 NLT

Um, mic drop anyone? 

I was feeling overwhelmed the other day. I was deep in that tension of knowing who God is and yet looking around and trying to figure out which task I should start in that particular moment. Do you ever have that? You feel fine while you’re busy but then you have a space of time (and a list of BIG tasks- like finding a new home, preparing a home to sell, scheduling kids activities for the looming summer vacation, finding childcare for a ten day ministry trip, various projects overseeing a number of people etc.). I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew I couldn’t WASTE the time I was given. There is just so much to do! 

I started thinking about this verse and tried to encourage myself. I had a memory that the NKJV version says God is able to do “exceedingly, abundantly above” what we can do through “His mighty power that works within us.” I closed my eyes and thought, “okay, mighty Holy Spirit power, work! I need exceedingly, abundantly above, right now.” I felt like I needed to read the scripture, and so I went to my Bible app and looked it up. I read the whole chapter. I read it again in a different translation. I sat down in a quiet moment and asked Jesus to help me understand what it means. 

I wrote about Mary back in December, how she “treasured and pondered” the words that her son, Jesus, spoke to her. I wanted to treasure and ponder this scripture and understand it. Treasuring and pondering takes time and patience… I sat and I read it again and I began to write out what I thought it meant. In the scriptures before, Paul was talking about his life and the privilege of taking the message of Jesus to the gentiles (non-Jewish people). I just watched, “A.D. Kingdom and Power” on Netflix and the series illustrates the context of Paul’s experience from the book of Acts. Paul was preaching not just to a people from different culture from his own, but the oppressive ruling culture that was keeping the Jewish people under their thumb. American Christians often think of missions as going to people who have less money or resources than us. God sent Paul to a group of people who believed they were culturally superior to him, who had economic and political power over him. Basically, they were racist, classist and xenophobic but they were spiritually hungry and Jesus used Paul to meet their need for God. Wow! Paul would have had to understand this mighty power. He had to access it constantly. 

However, the thing that impacted me most about this passage is the source of the strength and power. When Christ lives in our hearts, it says our roots will grow down in God’s love and keep us strong. It’s the love of Jesus that nourishes the root system of our lives. Underneath everything we say and do that is visible to those around us is the root system that determines our strength and existence. A tree that has deep roots can stand for centuries while a tree with shallow roots can be easily knocked down. Our roots are sustained and strengthened by the love of God. 

In that moment, as I pondered, I remembered experiencing the love of God deeply, for the first time. As a twelve year old, I began to believe that God loves me, that He designed me and knows me uniquely, and that nothing can separate me from that love. I was changed in a million ways and am still becoming who I know He created me to be. At every moment of challenge, at feeling overwhelmed, I am reminded that it is His love that defines us. It is not our success, our own expectations, the opinions of people who give our lives value. In seasons of insecure adolescence, academic achievement, ministry fulfillment and challenge, marriage, motherhood, throughout my life it has always come back to His love. 

If you need this mighty power to accomplish something too big for you today, remember His love and let it surround you and bring you peace. Be defined by His love for you and believe that He decided you are worth the sacrifice of Jesus. He will make you complete with His love. 

XO

Bethany

A True Friend

Recently, Pastor Tiffany spoke on being a friend and what friendship with God looks like. This caused me to reflect on my experiences with friendship. Growing up, I did not have very good female friendships.  I guess it was the “fun” in dysFUNction that allowed me to stay in these messy relationships. They were full of backbiting, mean girl shenanigans and DRAMA!!!

It was not until I had my first son, Malachi, and became friends with other young, Christian mothers that I really learned how to be a true friend.

When Malachi was about 2 years old, I became friends with a woman who had a son about the same age as mine. She invited us over one day for a play date and around lunch time, I was packing up to leave, but she insisted that we stay for lunch. This was such a simple thing, but this act of kindness and generosity completely floored me. It was hard for me to accept her invitation. I knew that we were both on strict budgets and food and diapers were so expensive, but she was willing to share her food and time with me. On those long days of being home alone with a toddler, this was like a trip to Disneyland!!

We quickly became very good friends and spent a lot of time together raising our boys. Unfortunately, a time came when we needed to have a difficult conversation to correct some things between us. However, my lack of healthy friendship skills kept me from addressing the problem in love. I ended up abruptly cutting off the relationship and hurting her quite badly.

Soon enough, this same thing was done to me by another friend. As I wallowed in my pain and self pity, one day the Lord showed me what I had done to my first friend. I had hurt her the same way that I was hurting. I was aghast!! See, I really didn’t think I was that bad of a person or a friend. This caused me to ponder the fact that my inadequacies as a friend explained why my earlier friendships were so tumultuous. Could I be the problem???

I quickly went to the phone to call the woman that I had hurt and begged for her forgiveness. I was very nervous and prepared myself for a tongue lashing. What I got from her instead, again, completely floored me. She said, “Sharon, I really appreciate you calling me. I have already forgiven you. I have been praying for you to be blessed; you and your family. You already had my forgiveness, but it’s really nice to have an apology.”

I was stunned and humbled. The same woman who taught me how to be a true friend continued to be a true friend even when I had not. She was the first example in human form of how the Lord Jesus extends His friendship to us. Even when we don’t keep up our side of the relationship, He doesn’t let go and He continues to pray that we would be blessed. His love never fails!

Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

This friend of mine has embodied this verse in my life and caused me to strive to also be this kind of friend. Some of the things I have learned about true friendship are these: we must be forgivers (Matt 6:14). True friends don’t gossip and can be trusted with a secret (Proverbs 16:28).  True friends always look for the good (Proverbs 11:27). True friends confront in love when needed and don’t bail when things get rough (Proverbs 27:6). True friends are patient. True friends are kind. True friends are dependable. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

In a world full of mean girls and social media “friendships,” let’s be the friends that God has called and empowered us to be!

IMG_6331Sharon Rhodes is a mom of three incredible boys and the wife of Allen. She’s passionate about prayer and evangelism and helped to pioneer the Agoura Campus of The City Church. She leads the Agoura Campus prayer team and also leads a City Group. If you’re passionate about prayer and would like to join Sharon, come to one of our Sunday Grow Classes available every week during the 10:30 service at the Agoura Campus!

The Most Beautiful Story of All

It’s Easter week, our houses are full of eggs and candy and our minds are filled with preparations for Spring Break. Maybe right now you can stop and take a moment to fill your heart with the reality of the most beautiful story of all.

Jesus’ story is the power to change everything, to make your story beautiful, no matter how dark or boring, or despairing. Because of Jesus: 

You don’t have to prove that you are worth loving. God placed the ultimate value on you in paying for your life with the life of His most precious Son.

Your sin is dead. That nasty tendency to do the things that hurt us and hurt others, has been buried with Jesus Christ and no longer has power over your decisions.

You are understood. Jesus sees and has felt all of the things you feel, the struggles you’ve had. He prays for you constantly.

You are not alone. The Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead NOW lives inside of you, enabling you to do what you could never do before

You have nothing to fear. You are promised a beautiful future, restoration and new life for things that have dried up and died. You will experience an eternity of beauty and love.

There is no story more beautiful than the story of what Jesus has done for us! If you have never heard this before, then today I want you to know that God loves you so much. He knows you by name and invites you to know Him! You don’t have to fix anything about yourself to be accepted by Him. Simply ask Him to come into your life.

Join me in this prayer: Jesus, thank you for what you did for me when you died on the cross and came back to life. I believe in you and I want to know you and become who you created me to be. Fill me with your Holy Spirit and help me to share the joy of knowing you with everyone I meet. Amen.

 

The Bible tells us even more. If you have questions, you can find answers there.

For this is how much God loved the world—he gave his one and only, unique Son as a gift. So now everyone who believes in him will never perish but experience everlasting life. John 3:16 (TPT)

Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace. Romans 6:14 (NLT)

Yes, God raised Jesus to life! And since God’s Spirit of Resurrection lives in you, he will also raise your dying body to life by the same Spirit that breathes life into you! Romans 8:11 (TPT)

This is why he had to be a Man and take hold of our humanity in every way. He made us his brothers and sisters and became our merciful and faithful King-Priest[b] before God; as the One who removed our sins to make us one with him. 18 He suffered and endured every test and temptation, so that he can help us every time we pass through the ordeals of life. Hebrews 2:17-18 (TPT) 

Never doubt God’s mighty power to work in you and accomplish all this. He will achieve infinitely more than your greatest request, your most unbelievable dream, and exceed your wildest imagination! He will outdo them all, for his miraculous power constantly energizes you. Now we offer up to God all the glorious praise that rises from every church in every generation through Jesus Christ—and all that will yet be manifest through time and eternity. Amen! Ephesians 3:20-21 (TPT)