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~ Written by Samantha Freds

Christmas is a season of anticipation. Children of all ages struggle to sleep the night before Christmas as their little hearts are filled with excitement of the next morning. Families have countdown calendars and preparatory traditions leading up to the joyous day. The Christmas season should remind us of another season of anticipation long ago.

For generations, Israel awaited the promised Messiah. Parents and grandparents would have gathered their children around to tell them the prophesies of the One who was to save them. They anxiously awaited freedom from Roman oppression. They expected a Savior King.

They got an infant. A baby so weak it could be contained in a blanket. A child so insignificant he was born among animals and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus was far from what they expected.

But as he grew, there was promise of greatness. He impressed the religious teachers in the temple as a boy. He performed miracles and drew huge crowds when he spoke.

Then the real unexpected happened. Jesus stood silent before his accusers next to a political insurrectionist named Barabbas. Barabbas was a voice in the rebellion. He was the leader Israel wanted. So though Pilate didn’t think Jesus was guilty under Roman law, his death was called for by the very people he came to save.

They were disappointed with Jesus.

Are you disappointed with Jesus? Has He been too slow in answering your heart’s deepest prayer? Did you expect Him to rush in and save the day? Are you wondering where the mighty Savior is? Have you been hurt by the lack of justice in your life or in the life of someone you love?

If you are disappointed with Jesus know you are not alone. And know that Jesus isn’t deterred by your disappointment. His love is unconditional. He knew He would be despised and rejected, but He came anyway. This season we celebrate the birth of a Savior who exceeded all expectations when He willingly went to the cross for each and every one of us.

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~ Written by Samantha Freds

There are few things I enjoy more this time of year than puzzles. I love piecing together a beautiful landscape or a colorful scene. I find it relaxing yet challenging. I relish the satisfaction of tracking down that one piece I have been looking for. Recently, I’ve discovered what I believe to be a near-perfect combination of favorite things: fuzzy socks, a cup of hot coffee, and a puzzle.

My love for puzzles goes back to my childhood. My mom and I used to do them together when the weather forced us to stay inside. It was my mom who taught me proper puzzle strategy. First, you must separate the edge pieces from the middle pieces. Next, you put the outside together so you have a boundary to work within. Then you lay out all the middle pieces and put the box away.

Mom always encouraged me to not look at the picture on the box because she thought that was cheating. I, on the other hand, called it using my resources!

Fortunately, Mom had a very different strategy when it came to life. She encouraged both her kids to return to God’s puzzle box as often as possible. Just like puzzle creators provide a guide, our Creator gave us a guidebook for life. And just like the picture helps direct my efforts when I get stuck working on a certain section of a puzzle, the Bible is the life-giving direction I so desperately need.

I’ve been in a bit of a valley lately – a dry season spiritually. So I write to remind myself of the beauty of the Word of God. I so desperately need it to guide my life!

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105

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~ Written by Cassie Rayl

I’ve read the words hundreds of times. But yesterday, I saw 1 Corinthians 2:8 for the first time:

“…the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…”

Every five-year-old who grew up in a Gospel-teaching church knows Christ was crucified because of the ignorance and sin of humanity. But what would the outcome have been if they had understood the mystery of God’s wisdom?

Obviously, the Son of God would not have died. But, if He hadn’t been crucified, would we ever receive the gift of redemption, and the glory of eternal life? No, we wouldn’t.

Sometimes, I run into the Throne Room and scream, “I’m too blind, too broken, and too immature to understand what You’re doing, Jehovah! This isn’t working. Use someone else. Use someone who isn’t as off-the-mark as I am, okay? I’m messing You up.”

But then, in the gentleness I’ve only ever experienced at the hands of my God, He whispers to my heart, “You are not sinful enough to dethrone My glory, Child. Humanity was too blind to see the wisdom of my Son, yet I used even that darkest night of His crucifixion to bring about the gift of life.”

I serve the God whose power is never erased because of sin or death. Oh, what a Savior!

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~ Written by Rosa Munoz 

My life is full of new beginnings. In January 1983 I came to the USA, a new country, with great expectations of new adventures with my husband Hector Melendez. We had very little financial resources and connections. We had left our family and friends in our native land, Puerto Rico. Immigrating to a new country, culture, place, and environment was exciting but challenging.

I remembered praying and telling God, “I will look to you, follow your will with all my heart and mind. Oh! my Heavenly Father, my Lord all the days of my life.” The Bible reminds us about God’s faithfulness in Lamentations 3:21-24. His hope, faithfulness, goodness and provision have been evident throughout the 34 years of my life here in the USA.

We started out in Miami, Florida, for seven years. I experienced growth in a different aspect of my life. We then moved to Tampa in 1990. We had hoped for a baby, but it wasn’t until September 1992 that our miracle baby, Matthew, came to us. We rejoiced in God’s faithfulness in giving us a child.

A year later, my husband died in a car accident. I began a new, different life as a young widow with my little one-year-old in Tampa. Once again I waited on God, looking to Him and relying on His faithfulness, hope and provision. My focus became seeking God’s direction for taking care of my little boy and pleasing Him. I praise God for the godly women He brought to my life and the prayer partners who strengthened and helped me to grow daily in Jesus Christ. I was learning that I was not alone.

The next summer I met a widower, Jesus Munoz, with three children. He had been through similar life experiences through losing his wife in a car accident. God was preparing a new beginning for our lives. After four years of friendship and God’s perfect timing we married in July of 1998. This brought on another new beginning as we embarked on blending two families, church planting and leadership development. It has been a great gift to our lives. I have been richly blessed to meditate on my memories of new beginnings and remember that God is faithful. Our hope is in Him.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

Don’t use a GPS to get to my house. You won’t make it there. Despite their amazing ability to track where you are, Global Positioning Systems will claim that you have arrived about a half mile before you actually reach our place.

Believe me, I’m not criticizing. I remember all too well the days of navigating LA freeways with a map in hand. I’d take my eyes off the road, finally find my place on the map, look up to check the road and lose my place on the map. It was just as dangerous as texting while driving.

So my recent trip to California felt like a breeze. My favorite feature of my GPS is the fact that it tells you ahead of time which lane to get into so you’re ready for the next exit. And I absolutely love its ability to redirect after I’ve taken a wrong turn.

It got me started thinking about how much I appreciate our spiritual GPS: God’s Purpose Secured. God has a purpose for me, and all I need to do is pay attention and follow directions. 

Even when He tells me to get into a lane I don’t want to be in, He is positioning me for whatever exits He wants me to take that will lead to arriving at His purpose for me. And He never gives up on me when I take a wrong turn. Praise God, He will fulfill His purposes for me. And He won’t stop until He brings me safely to my destination.

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~ Written by Viki Rife

“Don’t settle for what you alone can make of yourself.” 

This is the motto for FGBC leaders as they gather in various regions for annual Focus retreats. At the Southwest retreat this week, the question was asked of seasoned leaders, “What was the best advice you ever received? What was the worst?”

One of the “worst” pieces of advice to pastors that seemed to resonate with everyone was, “Don’t get too close to your people; it will open you to getting hurt.” Having grown up in a pastor’s home, I deeply understand the sentiment behind it. There’s enough pain in life without being wounded by your own sheep. And I’ve seen deep wounds.

There’s a problem with that approach, though. It just isn’t biblical. Paul speaks many times in his epistles about how dear the believers are to him. He looks forward to being with them so they can encourage him as he encourages them. We are to build one another up—you can’t do that if you’re using a ten-foot pole! Building God’s church is a hands-on, stone-on-stone effort. Leaders must model the kinds of relationships they expect to see among their followers. They must remember that they, too, are only another stone in God’s building.

The discussion left me with two prayers:

1. Lord, help me draw close to your people, even the ones who hurt me.

2. Lord, help me bless those who lead me, not tear them down.

I hope those are your prayers, too. Together, we can help each other make more of ourselves.

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~Written by Cassie Harris

Will this really effect my eternity?  

I’ve had to learn to ask this question throughout the day. It’s been even harder to answer the question honestly. 

I’m such a planner and routine-lover that when my expectations aren’t met, I have a tendency to feel as if my world is shattering. It can be caused by anything from a forgotten dinner date to a ruined possession. If it’s not in the equation of what I planned my day to consist, I get frustrated. If I can stop the frustration from cascading off my lips, I at least get sarcastic and short with those around me. 

Though my reactions are wrong, the heart of the matter is I am in desperate need of consistency and dependable things in my life. When things don’t go correctly, I often walk away feeling hurt.  

At one point, like so many times before, God came to my rescue several years ago with one simple yet bold truth. He is my constant. He is dependable. 

John 10:28-29 promises that if we are His, if we have chosen to follow Him, no one can snatch us out of His hand. Therefore, our eternity is secure. The one thing that truly matters is never effected and never changed. 

What a perspective shift to remember that when I’m looking for consistency and a firm foundation when my plans crumble, the reality is, Jesus Christ never left.   

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Written by Viki Rife

“When our kids aren’t coming home for Christmas, we don’t bother to put up a tree,” I confessed to my friend the other day. She agreed, adding, “I figure it’s two whole days of my life used up, one to put everything up and one to take everything down.” We both had drawn the same conclusion: if no one’s there to enjoy it, why bother?

The Christmas story, however, shows us a very different attitude. God purposefully sent His perfect Son knowing only a few would enjoy the spectacular event. How many people actually recognized that this baby was different from all the others? Only a handful. God orchestrated a huge choir of angels for just a few shepherds. He provided a special star for just a few wise men. When Jesus was dedicated at the temple, the priests and religious leaders did not gather to celebrate—it was just another baby. Only two elderly people with prophetic gifts took advantage of the great moment.

That’s the amazing thing about God. He doesn’t hold back His creativity just because few will enjoy it. Instead, He touches our humble lives with His amazing beauty every single day, whether or not we open our eyes to recognize it, whether we are tuned in or not. I think He went to all that bother because He wanted to delight certain people. He knew exactly what their hearts longed for.

As we each revisit the Christmas story this year, let’s take time to enter the amazement that each of the participants in that first Christmas must have felt. Not everyone “got it,” but those who did were blessed beyond measure. That very same God wants to bless YOU with surprises that others may miss. Enjoy His beauty this season!

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~ Written by Cassie Harris

More than ever before, holidays represent change in my life. 

For the past three years, instead of being with family, I’m a welcomed guest in a friend’s home. After a life of ministry, you’d think I’d be used to the situation, but this time, it’s different. This time, my immediate family isn’t with me.

Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday. I’ve learned to live in transition, but I know Mom would like nothing more than to have all her kids around the table. So, that makes Thanksgiving in this new season of life a new level of difficult.

 As I pondered the approaching Thanksgiving this year, I found a whole new level of Thanksgiving to celebrate. I was struck with the reality that I can trust God with His provision, love and grace over my family even when life looks differently than how I want it to look.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you find yourself, may you spend a moment to glory in the fact that we serve a constant, present and providing God. Even when life is in transition, He never changes. 

Thank God for His constant presence in an ever-changing world 

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~ Written by Viki Rife

The summer I was 10, I had a chance to go an hour away into the mountains of California for a children’s camp. For a nature-lover like myself, it was a delightful week of breathing in the rich smell of the pine trees and learning to recognize animal tracks.  

One night in the middle of an energetic pillow fight when we were supposed to be sleeping, our counselor walked in from the nightly counselor meeting. Strangely, she didn’t scold us. Instead, she sat us down and explained that we were going to have to spend the next few days cleaning the cabin top to bottom and preparing a special program. The Board was coming! 

It wasn’t long before the significance of the announcement began to sink in. Apparently, The Board had a lot of expectations and a lot of power. We were briefed on how we should behave when the Board Members were present. We scrubbed the cabin and aired our mattresses. We even hiked the paths into the woods picking up any sticks or fallen pine cones that might obstruct the Board Members if they chose to walk there. We overheard the kitchen staff planning the meals they would serve the Board Members. In my mind, it was comparable to having the Queen of England arrive at our camp. My greatest fear was, “What if one of them tries to talk to me?”

Several days later, running with my friends to lunch, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. There on the porch of the dining cabin sat my grandfather, his feet propped up on the railing. 

“Grandpa, what are you doing here?” I gasped as I reached him.  

He chuckled. “Enjoying the mountains and the sunshine,” he answered. Knowing my grandpa, it was no stretch for me to picture that he had driven all the way up here to sit on this porch for a little while. The twinkle in his blue eyes warmed my heart, and I was intensely thankful for his timing. 

No Board Member could hurt me while Grandpa was here. 

After a short chat, he said, “You’d better go on in. I’ll stay here and wait for my friends.”

As I entered, my counselor hurried over to me. “Why were you talking with that Board Member?” she asked. 

“I didn’t talk to a Board Member,” I told her.

“Yes, you did. Out there on the porch,” she insisted. 

I didn’t say anything, but I was hurt at being falsely accused. She should know I was way too shy to ever talk to a Board Member. Besides, I hadn’t seen any Board Members on the porch. I would surely have died if I had. 

Then the camp director grabbed a microphone and announced, “Boys and Girls, I want you to welcome our Board.” The door opened and in walked…my grandpa and his friends! It still took me a while to wrap my head around the truth: my tender, patient grandpa with a constant hint of mischief in his eyes, the man I could confide my deepest secrets to, the one who loved me just the way I was, was a Board Member. The term no longer held any fear for me

Sometimes in my life, I think of God as an unknown Board Member making sure I don’t do anything wrong. Then I remember he is also the one who loves me beyond anything I can imagine. 

Perfect love casts out fear. 

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