Many of our Life Groups take a break for summer, a wonderful practice of renewal. Each of us needs “fallow” time, time to rest and renew, so we can be ready to re-engage. Jesus modeled this practice for us as he withdrew from the craziness of the world from time to time in order to be more fully present with His Father. If your group is taking some time off this summer, congratulations! As you withdraw from the world in order to spend more time with God, it can be helpful to introduce a Spiritual Discipline into your life, if you are not already practicing one.
Spiritual Disciplines can sound so intimidating! In reality, they are simply practices designed to make us more mindful of our Creator, and help us engage more meaningfully with our Redeemer. Spiritual disciplines lead us into freedom – freedom to be the person God created us to be.
Here are two books you might want to read this summer. Both offer inspiring and practical advice for renewal and going deeper with God.
Wilderness Time: A Guide for Spiritual Retreat by Emilie Griffin. This book offers an overview of the Inward Disciplines (meditation, prayer, fasting and study); the Outward Disciplines (simplicity, solitude, submission and service); and Corporate Disciplines (confession, worship, guidance and celebration). This book includes suggestions for short (one to three day) retreats, where you can take a break from the world around you and simply “be” with God.
A Travelogue of the Interior: Finding your Voice and God’s Heart in the Psalms by Karen Dabaghian invites you on a journey – an interior journey of ascent and descent, hitting bottom and learning to foresee by faith the advent of Jesus our Messiah. Give yourself permission to spend the summer reading and re-reading the Psalms. Like the author, you may find a deeper and more honest relationship with God.
May God bless you this summer. May His face shine upon you and give you peace!
“Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity ” – A Topical discussion book for your life group
Most of us today know people or have friends who have different religious beliefs. It’s challenging to know how and when to share our faith. Often it’s critical for us to have an understanding of, and respect for, the other person’s belief system before we bring up the topic. If you’re looking to get a perspective on Islam and what it’s like growing up in a Muslim community, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity ” by Nabeel Qureshi may be a great fit for you and for your life group. My group studied it over a period of about three months and every one of us came away with a deeper understanding of the Islamic faith and what it means to properly share our faith.
In his book, Qureshi delivers insights into both Islam and Christianity and provides substantial food for thought and lively groupdiscussion. He starts by discussing his upbringing as an American Muslim and paints a comprehensive picture of growing up steeped in his faith as his Pakistani parents migrate to the US then to Scotland and eventually back to the US. Along the way, Qureshi explains different tenants of his faith and provides religious and cultural perspectives. He enjoys being part of a Muslim community and is proud and content with his faith. Well, at least at first.
All of this begins to change, however, when Qureshi enters college. It’s there that he meets a young Christian named David. David was new to his Christian faith, having studied it for five years to determine if it was true for him. They strike up a friendship but David did not preach Christianity to Qureshi who writes “Even though the gospel was his passion, he did not bombard me with his beliefs straightaway. The discussions arose much more naturally, after we became friends, and in the context of a life lived together.” This is an important take-away as the two friends begin to discuss and explore their faiths together. I too learned both about Islam and about Christianity through their discussions and exchanges. Qureshi was intent on defending his faith. David was intent on not ramming his faith down Qureshi’s throat. However, as Qureshi digs deeper into Islam he finds more questions than answers and begins to find more truth in Christianity. But at what cost? He begs God/Allah to guide him to the right answer knowing that, should that path lead to Christianity, he’ll be abandoned by his family and most of his friends.It’s a challenging walk for Qureshi and a fascinating story as he tells of arriving at his conclusion.
I found Qureshi’s stories, documentation of the Koran, other Islamic texts and explanations extremely helpful. It’s one thing to try to understand another faith from the outside but very different – and far more powerful and credible – to have it explained by someone who lives and practices it. This book is very helpful in understanding some of the inner workings of Islam at a personal and cultural level but also provides valuable insights into understanding and sharing your faith with others. The first three chapters perhaps start off a bit slowly as Qureshi recounts his upbringing but, if you’re like most of my small group, as you get into chapter four and beyond you’ll find it hard to put the book down.
The book is available on Amazon for about $15 and works well for a weekly or bimonthly life group discussion.
Being a part of a life group is about so much more than just reading and discussing a book. Certainly, having a focused study that delves into our faith walk is important but equally important, if not more, are the relationships that are formed within a group. Those relationships are built by sharing and listening – by being supportive and prayerful of each other.
When we face challenges in life, we need a friendly, welcoming place to talk. A place where we are surrounded by like-minded people who often just listen, simply listen. We may plan that our evening meeting may focus on the next chapter of our book but instead find that someone that needs our help and support. They’ve had a tough week: work issues, family issues, health issues. We may end up spending the entire evening just listening to what someone is sharing. We may offer some counsel. We’ll end up praying. In fact, in our group we’ve concluded that our discussion itself – in God’s presence – is a form of prayer.
For many of us here in Silicon Valley, there aren't many places where we can let our defenses down and pour out our hearts knowing people will listen, without judgment, without predisposition. For our group, every Wednesday night there is a place of respite – a friendly, welcoming place where we’re surrounded by friends who are walking our faith journey with us. It may seem corny but the lyrics from the TV show Cheers seem to sum it up nicely:
To me, that’s what my life group is: a place where everybody knows my name and they’re always glad I came. There’s not many places like that anymore. Every morning I thank God for my group. I know we’re all praying for each other and for everyone’s needs and concerns, while knowing that the Lord is a part of our group as well.
Are Life Groups just for adults? Absolutely not! Recently Christy Rohrig shared this story about the life group she and her husband Brent Fairbanks lead:
"Our life group meets on Sundays, and since we all have children, we bring our kids to the group with us. Sometimes they just hang out with a babysitter, but sometimes we involve them in the group. Recently, when we met on Palm Sunday, we had seven adults and seven kids. Some of the kids had been playing in the pool, when we gathered everyone together in a circle outside (the kids with dripping swim suits). We had prepared communion and had cups of grape juice and a loaf of bread. We told the story of what today (Palm Sunday) meant. The kids were talking about Jesus coming into Jerusalem and the palm branches and everybody yelling, “Hosanna!” We told them “hosanna” means “God save us.” Then we talked about Jesus gathering his disciples for Passover. (At an earlier meeting, we talked about Passover’s origins and Moses). We passed a cup of grape juice to everyone and said, “Jesus said, ‘This is my blood, whenever you drink, do this in remembrance of me.’” One 5 year old reassured the other kids, “It’s not real blood.” Then we told them how Jesus took the bread and broke it, saying, “This is my body given for you,” and passed the bread to each person. We talked about different ways of taking communion, such as intinction (where the bread is dipped into the juice), and that each way was okay. The important thing was to remember Jesus and his sacrifice for us. One of the kids in the group, aged 7, said a prayer, and then it was back to the pool and chaos of a life group with kids."
Thank you, Christy, for sharing this wonderful slice of life from your Life Group!
Life Groups are for every person, regardless of age. This group found a beautiful way to tangibly share with their children Jesus’ atoning gift for each of us. Are you part of a Life Group? If not, come join us! Contact Sally at 408-867-1000 ext. 233 or at Sally's email for more information.
When I was growing up, there was a handful or so of different types of prayers. There was Grace at dinner which was the same prayer every night (Come Lord Jesus…), bedtime prayers (Now I lay me down to sleep…), the Lord’s Prayer, and then the liturgical prayers offered up by the pastor on Sunday morning. And, of course, there were always also the, “God I need something,” prayers which some people refer to as the, “ATM Machine God” prayers, because you call on God only when you’re in trouble or want something. Mind you, none of these are bad prayers in any way but, to me, prayer felt like more of an obligation than an opportunity, a generally unthinking- ritual without much substance or depth.
My small group is now reading Prayer, Does it Make Any Difference by Philip Yancey. This book tackles a really challenging topic and it’s full of meaty insights. One of these insights is that God wants to have a conversation with us and that we should, in fact, talk to God like we’re talking with our earthly fathers as a sort of dialog. (Yancey discusses a wide variety of types of prayers in this book and goes into depth about why prayer is important, but that’s a topic for another blog).
A while ago I started trying this approach to prayer. When I’d go on a walk, I’d ask God to join me. Sometimes that would work, sometimes not depending on my frame of mind at the time.
I learned something new, however, about this dialog approach to prayer while I was on a recent 12-day business trip to England and India. On occasion, while in England, I’m able to get together for dinner with some friends I have there but for the most part, I’d have breakfast and dinner alone. Outside of work, I don’t have any friends in India so I’d pretty much have breakfast and dinner alone all of the time.
Except now, I don’t have my meals alone. I invite God to join me.
At dinner, for example, I say a silent Grace and then I begin a dialog with God. I talk (silently of course) about my day and things that went well and things that went poorly. I’d ask His counsel on challenges, problems, and opportunities. I’d share my concerns about taking care of my family while I’m away. Mind you, this feeling is particularly acute when you’re in India which is pretty much literally on the other side of the planet – it would take you about 30 hours to get home in the best of conditions. I found myself feeling a bit lonely, but having a dialog with God at meals and throughout the day offered me three things:
· It eased my anxiety about being so far away from home.
· I wasn’t lonely eating by myself anymore. In fact, I kind of looked forward to my time with God.
· It helped me figure out what happened during the day, think it through and find ways to make tomorrow better.
As my small group digs further into Yancey’s book on prayer, I’ll be curious to find out how it’s changed their daily routines. I know that, over the course of our studies these past years, we’ve all become more mindful of the power of prayer but now, I think we’re starting to get a sense of why it’s important to us and to God.
I know that having God along on my trip sure made it a much more enjoyable and enriching experience. From the readings in my small group, I’ve learned that having a conversation with God can be a very enriching and comforting experience. It helps me experience fellowship with God in a new and different light. Give it a try sometime!
Grace is a word that I didn’t come to understand until recently and then primarily by benefit of my small group. In the church in which I was raised, grace was not a strong theme. In my mind, we were taught to feel guilt and then receive forgiveness…pretty much on a weekly basis. You had to wait until Sunday for the pastor to absolve your sins (and guilt) to wipe the slate clean. Aside from saying Grace at dinner, I don’t recall that I really thought about grace all that much. It certainly wasn’t a key component of my faith.
One of the first books my small group read was What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey. If you haven’t read this book, I can’t recommend it enough. I would say that, apart from the Bible, it may be the most amazing book on faith and Christianity ever written (well, top 10 at least) and it is written in a way that lends itself well to a small group study. Grace is the dominant theme in most all of Yancey’s books.
In an interview, when asked to define grace, Yancey responded:
I don’t even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?” The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one-hour grace period.” So I asked, “Oh really, what is grace?” And she said, “I don’t know. [They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.] I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.” That’s a good start to a definition.
As we all know, we are supposed to pay for our sins but God, through Jesus, paid for them for us. It’s by his grace that we are saved.
Yet how often do we pass that grace along to others? Or, rather than offer grace, how often do we instead offer up grace’s alter-ego of judgment?
After reading What’s So Amazing About Grace? and other books on the topic of grace in our small group, I’ve started to understand what grace really means and come to realize that it is the cornerstone of my faith. Grace is not just my faith in and thankfulness to God, but also how I should represent my faith to others. Yet, for those of us who should know that it is by God’s grace we are saved, how quickly we can turn around and become hypocrites, judging others without a shred of grace.
Yancey cites a story in several of his books about a friend who was a counseling a prostitute and, at one point, in regards to getting help, the counselor asks her if she had ever thought of going to a church. The woman replied “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
Sadly, I’ve been to churches like that – quick to judge and exclude. Fortunately, SFC isn’t that way. I believe we’re a grace-filled group that strives to share the grace we’ve received with others around us and welcome anyone into our fellowship.
As I come to understand what grace means, I realize I need to be appreciative of it and comprehend the responsibility I have to share it with others. Doing so does take practice, and from reading, talking and listening to stories in my small group, we’re learning how to show grace with each other without passing judgment. A small group is a great place to start showing grace. When we share our challenges in a grace-filled group, we receive support, encouragement and – when necessary – forgiveness instead of judgment and condemnation.
I was in a bit of a quandary. My son had given me a book to read and it raised questions that I couldn’t quite answer. The book was titled Crazy Love by Francis Chan. I really hadn’t spent much time reading religious books and this one presented some challenging issues. Yeah, I’d been in a small group a few years earlier. It was fine, but we studied books of the Bible using study guides that all too often asked questions like: “Why did Jesus get into the boat?” OK, I’m being a bit facetious, but the answers weren’t hard. Crazy Love asked difficult questions like: “It confuses us when loving God is hard. Shouldn’t it be easy to love a God so wonderful?” Or, when God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we expect: “Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation?” Umm.
Where could I go to get answers? I didn’t belong to a small group anymore.
I reached out to some friends I knew at church and asked them if they’d be interested in getting together to read this book my son had given me. About five guys said they’d be up for it so we gathered on a Wednesday night downstairs at church and dug in. Over the course of several months together we answered many of our questions, raised some new ones, and tried to answer them too. It was helpful. It was satisfying. It was educational. In fact, it was actually fun.
That was nine books ago.
In retrospect, what’s been so amazing about this group is how God has formed and molded it. Over the years that we’ve been together, we’ve had a few people leave but even more have joined. Most of the new members were people I’d never met and it’s uncanny how God has a knack for sending us just the right people at just the right time. It’s like God has all of the odd shaped pieces and he knows just how to fit them together to complete the puzzle.
I found that what I got myself into was a fascinating and enlightening experience. On any given Wednesday night we may spend 90 minutes talking about the book we’re reading or 90 minutes discussing a problem or concern that one of us is facing. We may even spend 30 minutes quoting lines from Mel Brooks’ movies. We listen to each other. We support each other. We pray for each other. For me, the result is a close kinship that has given me the opportunity to share my thoughts and doubts about my faith in a way that ultimately has helped my faith mature and, hopefully, blossom. I didn’t know a small group could accomplish all of that and build friendships along the way.
It certainly wasn’t what I expected when I started, but I think it was what God had in mind all along. In fact, I’m glad He thought of the idea of forming this small group! It’s something that I look forward to every week. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
By the way, Crazy Love is a great book to read if you’re starting a small group or if you’re looking for some variety in your study material. It does pose some challenging questions, but it’s a great read and offers valuable perspectives on our relationship with God.