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.

Clothed in Grace

It was June 27, 1987. It was my wedding day. I walked down the aisle wearing a blush pink wedding dress. This nontraditional dress was not something I wanted. It was something I was told to wear.

I was raised in a conservative and traditional home, and the youngest of four children. For most of my younger days of life we attended church twice a week as a family. Both of my parents were also church leaders. I loved church, God, and was actively involved in youth group. 

At age 21, I was still living living at home, was working, had recently purchased a car and was dating a great guy. All is well, right?

I made myself a routine doctor visit because I was having bladder infection symptoms, expecting to be given a prescription for antibiotics and to be feeling better in no time. 

My lab results came back differently than what I had expected. “You are pregnant” were the shocking words of the doctor as he held me hands to comfort me. I left his office in a daze, trembling and holding a bottle of prenatal vitamins.  Thoughts bombarded my mind, how will I tell my family? What will church people think of me? More than that, what does God think of me? It was in that moment that the enemy began to plant seeds of shame and fear which would  begin to make me feel separated from how God truly viewed me. Those seeds were watered with some of the reactions of the people around me. 

This didn’t deter me from pursuing God in my life. My husband and I raised our two children in God’s word and pursued a genuine life in Him.

Decades later, I was in a season where God began to unveil past hurts and wounds within my heart. It was in this time, during prayer, that I encountered God’s presence and love in such a way that brought healing and wholeness. This shifted my identity forever and eliminated a lot of false perceptions that I had of myself.

God had never shamed me but was always accepting of me and His astounding love was settled upon my heart.

Now I look back at the young woman who was clothed in the pink wedding dress as one who was clothed in grace. It was recently that I found out what the color pink symbolizes biblically:  right standing with God. This is who I was to Him all along and now I freely walk in that truth. 

There is no power above us or beneath us—no power that could ever be found in the universe that can distance us from Gods passionate love, which is lavished upon us though our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One! -Romans 8:39 (TPT)

Prayer: I thank you Father for loving me unconditionally. I ask that You would bring your healing touch to any place in my heart that has been negatively affected by living in this world. Let my heart be completely free: the way that you intended from the beginning, knowing who I was made to be and who I am in You. 

IMG_4938Nadine Zaragoza is a mother of two and has been happily married to her husband Alex for 31 years. She is passionate about spending time in God’s presence She also loves to pray for people that they may experience God’s love in the form of physical healing. She and her husband both serve on the Next Steps Team at the Ventura campus of The City Church.

Safety in Jesus

WILD Devotional

One of my favorite verses of all time is, “Be still and know that I am God” Psalm 46:10

I have loved this verse from my early teen years.  As I have reflected back on my formative years I realize how God was with me during very unpredictable times.   My parents’ violent divorce, my mother’s drug addiction, and the loss of my eldest sibling at age 4 (she was 6).  I can still remember where I was, which street I was on when I was told my sister would never be my sister again. Dead… what did dead, hit by a car mean? I had no context to understand it.  I only understood that I’d never have my sister come home. There were only feelings… lots of BIG feelings. My throat swelled, my eyes watered, and I felt I could not breath.

Over time, I adjusted to being the only child, Mom thankfully flushed her pills down the toilet, and purchased a Bible. We started to read about where my sister Karrie might be.  I learned the Lord’s prayer, we started attending church, and my mom married a wonderful, Christian man.

In the second grade I was invited up to an alter call at school chapel.   I remember them asking if anyone wanted to have Jesus come live in their heart and be their best friend. I raised my hand, wanting to be picked so bad, to have HIM choose me and to live in my heart.  I knew HE existed, I knew HE was real, because I knew my sister lived with Him and I would too, someday. God was always beautiful to me, a safe haven, a place of refuge, and PEACE.

Since I experienced loss early I have known how valuable life is and the people in it.  I longed to be close and connected to God, and to find refuge in Him (in the shadow of his wings) during the challenging AND beautiful times.

I have continued to practice being in this special place of safety with Jesus to this day.  I breathe and rest in him, take moments of Sabbath each week to hike, pray, ride a bike, go for a run, walk on the beach, or spend time with the people I treasure in this life.  In the art of stopping this fast-paced life, I sense his nearness most. When I slow down the pace of my life and enjoy being still, He speaks most clear and is most near. I breathe deep and am still before HIM.   

Lord, please give us limits, boundaries, and the ability to manage our schedules to make time for resting in our daily life.  Thank you that you can reveal to each of us how and where in our busy schedules to slow down and be still in Your presence and enjoy being filled up, loved on by our Abba Father.

 

25128Susan Martinez Lee is a mother of five and has been married to Jimmy and living in Ventura for 21 years. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. The Lees are passionate about foster care and supporting other foster parents. They coach the cross country team at City Christian School where their son attends and they serve actively at Ventura Campus of The City Church.

When I Wandered

I’ve always loved babies and kids. From a very young age, I dreamed of being an elementary school teacher and decided I would do what it takes to become one.  I grew up in a “Christian” home and attended Sunday school and youth groups. When I was 15, everything was shaken in my life. My parents got a divorce and I began to question God and ask, “Why is this happening?” I went away to college happy to finally be on my own and away from the sadness of my broken family. I began to date for the first time and stopped going to church. Dating and guys became my idol as I began to search for someone to love me. I didn’t have a good example of real love or a healthy relationship.

Halfway through college, at the age of twenty, I found myself pregnant and in an abusive relationship. I had felt trapped and I had been praying for a way out of the relationship but this brought me to rock bottom. I was so ashamed. Even though I had turned my back on God, I still felt His presence in my life. He was still chasing after me!  He told me that He still loved me and would walk me through this part of my life. After many tears and prayers, I decided to place the baby for adoption. I was in the middle of college and still wanted to be a teacher and knew I could not provide for this child emotionally or financially. I found an amazing Christian family to adopt the baby and we have a great open adoption to this day. This was the hardest thing I have ever gone through but God was with me through the whole process- I could not have done it without Him.

Jesus said, ”What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18: 12-14). I love this verse because it reminds me of my story. God was still searching after me even though I continued to disobey Him with my own desires and sin! I can only imagine the type of rejoicing that happened in Heaven when I finally decided to give up my selfish ways and trust Him.

I moved back to Ventura after college and was in search of a new church and community. I had checked out a few churches in the area but did not feel welcomed or noticed. I decided to give City Church a try because I had seen the stickers on cars around town. I happened to be there on a City Group Sunday. I enjoyed the service but, since I am shy, I wanted to get out of there without having to talk to anyone. I wanted to get on with my Sunday but God had different plans.  After the service, two women, Tiffany Dooley and Shaleta Chatman, stopped me invited me to their City Group. I immediately felt cared for and important after talking to them for just a few minutes. They took a genuine interest in my story and who I was. I wasn’t just another new person at church anymore. I thought visiting The City Church was a random decision but God knew what He was doing. He knew exactly what I needed: community and love.

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I attended their group for two years and developed amazing friendships and community with those girls. My faith grew as a believer and they challenged me in my life. I came into the group broken, with a lot of baggage, and they didn’t judge me for it. They were a genuine example of God’s love and grace. They loved on me and prayed for me. This was the first time in my life I felt like I had genuine girlfriends who cared about me. I could call Tiffany any time of the day or night for prayer or encouragement.

 

Tiffany baptized me a couple of years later. When I married my husband, Dallas, she was a bridesmaid in my wedding and her husband, Andy, officiated the ceremony. Now Dallas and I have a beautiful baby girl of our own. The love of Jesus is so real and it’s expressed through real people doing real life together. If it wasn’t for the love of Jesus I experienced in my City group, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

KNP_2578Allison LaPrelle has been attending the City Church for over five years. She is married to her husband, Dallas. They just had their first baby girl- Isabella Grace. Allison is a kindergarten teacher at a public school in Santa Paula. She is passionate about children and loves to serve in the nursery.

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)

My Brokenness, His Strength

Ernest Hemingway once said, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”

I have never found this statement to be more true. I cling to the scripture Psalm 34:18 AMP “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We live in a culture that tells us that if something is broken, it must be fixed, thrown out, or even replaced. We see this in all aspects of life. From material things, to friendships, to even family members. Though here is my question: is brokenness really a bad thing?

Psalm 51:17 says NKJV “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart – these, O God, you will not despise.” From my perspective, if Jesus is near to those who are who are broken and desires those who are humble, why should we feel the need to ‘fix’ ourselves?  We are all consistently growing, changing, and living out our individual journeys in Jesus and I respect that. However, I want to introduce another train of thought. What would happen If we were to stop trying to ‘fix’ ourselves and make our broken parts whole again? What if we allowed Jesus to draw near to the broken parts of us as we draw near to him? What if we allowed the Father’s love to make us whole and complete – lacking nothing? What if we stopped trying to hide the broken parts of us and allowed God to use us in our brokenness?

I believe that if we can come to the end of ourselves, embrace our brokenness, and invite Jesus into the cracked parts of our existence, God will use us. God will use the very parts of you that you saw as broken. 2 Corinthians 2:9 says NKJV “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” Our weak places are where the spirit can dwell and God can show up and show out.  

Lastly, let us remember the anomaly that Jesus is not afraid of our brokenness. Let us remember that he knows us better than we know ourselves, yet still chooses to love us with an all consuming love – broken pieces and all.

So, I challenge you today and everyday to not allow brokenness to hinder your life or calling. Instead, allow Jesus to use your brokenness as a perfect vessel filled with his miraculous love and grace.

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Sierra Fernald is a Los Angeles based lifestyle blogger, social media influencer, creative and lover of Jesus. She counts serving in City Kids one of the greatest blessings of her life as well as connecting with the women of The City Church and serving on the GC Agoura leadership team. She is passionate about impacting the lives of young people for eternity and loves being a part of what God is doing in her city.