Tasting the Tampa Underground

This past week, Heather and I traveled to Tampa to the Underground Open Conference.  It was a very full three days.  If you are engaged in missional work or leading a missional community/network, I recommend learning what you can from the Underground.  And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put the conference on your schedule.

The theme was “To Change the World”.   I’ve been thinking and writing recently about changing the world in the right direction for a long time to come.  I want to see the world to changed!  I don’t just want want to see injustice, oppression, and evil diminished and expelled.  I want to see relationships restored, marriages strengthened, families blessed, people thriving and healthy, workplaces that cultivate dignity, work that provides and brings joy and satisfaction, for the people to know God as they are known!  (How about you?)  Well, the Underground Network is actively engaged in taking part in joining God in his work in Tampa.

Tampa Underground is a network of 200 or so micro-churches that are aimed at releasing God’s people to do the work they are called to do wherever they are.  I think I heard that about 6,000 people are involved, but that its kind of hard  to know.  They have micro-churches engaged in all kinds of work: some are mainly communal organized for neighborhoods, immigrants, or athletes.  Others are engaged in elevating struggling neighborhoods or failing schools.  Some are pushing against the darkness by taking on prostitution, racism, human trafficking, addiction, etc.  The work is both focused and broad, pioneering, and yet sustained.  They are ready to come along side and equip anyone who is feeling called to a group of people.  So the work they do is potentially as broad as the concerns God stirs in the hearts of any of his people.

It is one of the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic group of Christians I’ve ever learned from or worshiped with.  Two biblical points I’d like to make.  Hanging out with them gave me a sense of what it means to be “no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…”  because our new identity found in Christ Jesus makes us one.  (Galatians 3:26-29)  Secondly, what I saw there makes it easier to believe that Jesus meant it when he told Peter that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the church.  They are fighting a spiritual battle there.  It is a hope filled group.  But they were also very realistic.  They emphasized that this is missionary work.  It’s hard.  They said that suffering and pain are pretty guaranteed for anyone who steps into it.

In terms of our work, it helped me get a sense of what we’re doing right and how we could make some adjustments here.   It’s good to learn from someone else’s experience.  It was encouraging, too.  We are doing a lot of things pretty well already.

That’s enough for now.  But if you’d like to learn more, check out this documentary on the Tampa Underground.

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March 4 Worship Gathering

Our next gathering for worship will be Sunday, March 4, 2018 in the St. Johns Room at Faith Community Church at 6:30pm.  Our annual meeting is March 18.  Details to follow.

Hope you can take part!

And thanks to all who prayed for the retreat, by the way.  We had a great weekend away.  Truly restful and renewing!  Let’s do it again!

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Prayer and Fasting

I’m excited about what God has in store for us at this weekend’s retreat!  We’ll be focusing on prayer, and in preparation, some of us are going to be praying and fasting.  (We are not likely to fast during the retreat – we generally eat very well!)  I am praying and fasting for breakthrough – for the Holy Spirit to move in our hearts to empower us for discipleship.  You are invited to fast and pray with us this week.
Below are a few practical suggestions for how to approach this time of prayer and fasting.
About Fasting:

1) Fasting is often about choosing not to eat, but you can fast from anything that gives you an appetite.  Earlier this year, I enjoyed (seriously) fasting from food several days, but on a different occasion I planned a three day fast.  This is what I did:

Monday – a media fast.  No Facebook, news, or TV.
Tuesday – a fast from sweetness.  No cream or sweetener in my coffee. (I drink a lot of coffee). Nothing sweet to the taste.
Wednesday – a food fast, but with hot tea and water through the day.  (The caffeine helps me stay sharp, and the water helps me stay hydrated.  It’s easy to become dehydrated while fasting, because many of us take in liquids at meal time).

2) Often, people ask, “Do I have to fast from food?”  No.  You could refrain from eating any food, or you could choose to cut back on certain foods or types of foods.  Many people fast from meat during Lent, for example.  You could also fast for portions of each day, like during daylight. But you can fast from other things, too, like media, news or a hobby.  One time, I did a “transportation fast” and did not drive my car for a week. Choose what works for you.  And please don’t fast in a way that jeopardizes your health or puts a burden on the people around you.

3)  How does fasting relate to prayer?   Fasting brings focus to our prayers over a prolonged time.  It’s not magic, or a secret formula.  Nothing we do can force God’s hand.  And I know this sounds a bit vague, but prayer with fasting just helps.
4) Let the fast prompt you to pray.  When you want to do whatever you are fasting from, pray instead.  In others words, if you are fasting from food, every time you want to eat, pray a short prayer.  If you are fasting from social media, every time you want to check your phone to find out what’s happening, pray a short prayer instead.  This week, my short prayer will be, “God, empower us to disciple others.”
5) Don’t approach it legalistically or pridefully.  If you happen to accidentally break your fast, don’t beat yourself up.  Just laugh at yourself for slipping and renew your fast.  Also, if you feel like you are going backward while fasting, you may want to stop – and that’s okay.  For example, if you are fasting from food and getting cranky and snippy to the people around you, your fast may be doing more harm than good.  So stop!  Consider a different strategy.
6) Just do it!  Do you know that history took an amazing turn once when some people in a church prayed and fasted?  Something about prayer and fasting opened them up to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit calling Barnabas and Saul into a particular type of work.  The church responded faithfully, and within a few years, the Kingdom of God was advancing in what is now Turkey, Cyprus, Macedonia, and Greece.  Talk about breakthrough!  (See Acts 13:1-3 and the stories that follow).
If you choose to fast, if you need breakthrough in some area of your life, may the Lord bless us with a breakthrough!  We’ve fasted for a number of things – for our children, for friends who needed work, for marriages that were in trouble, for employers, for business turn-around, for friends seeking freedom from addiction, and for God’s work to advance in our own lives.  We want to see God’s Kingdom advance where we are.  May God’s Kingdom advance where you are, too!
I’m looking forward to seeing what God will do.
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Retreat to Re-engage

“Those that wait on and hope in God get fresh strength” (Isaiah 40:31a)

Love First Coast is returning to the ECO Lodge February 16-18 for a weekend of rest, recreation, renewal, worship, and prayer.  Anyone is welcome to join us. There’s no charge but we will ask you to help out with food prep.  (It feels more like family that way…)  It’s a time that feels like being with an extended family (because that’s pretty much how we operate.)  It’s a relaxed pace event but the time just seems to fly!  We worship, play games, watch movies, go for walks, pray, and enjoy great food!  The weekend is designed to encourage connecting and reconnecting with each other and with God.

By the way, this retreat can be especially helpful if you are serving the Lord with your life.

We offer this because there is so much vitally important work to do.  Currently, we’re involved in ministry with refugees, grieving families, special needs kids, youth, youth workers, teen moms and their babies, married couples, family, co-workers, neighbors, and providing support for the ministries of several area churches.  (And I am probably leaving a few things out.)  We are seeking to love people with the love of Jesus.  And the opportunities have been growing.  While this is joyful activity, it can also be a bit hard, emotionally challenging, or physically exhausting.

And so we take some time every year to withdraw like this, taking some time to seek strength, insight, and wisdom for the season ahead.  This year, we’ll be askiong the Lord to lead us to others who will join us in the mission of loving the First Coast.  If you’d like to join us for that, or for the retreat, let us know by email (pastorjessealexander@gmail.com) or phone (904)599-2889.  We’ll follow up!

RETREAT DETAILS – Because we know some of you want them!

When? Feb 16-18 (Friday Night thru Sunday morning)

Where? The Fabulous ECO Lodge in Fargo, GA  – part of Stephen Foster State Park(400 ECO Lodge Drive, Fargo, GA 31631)

Why?  Because the world we love needs rested renewed people who follow Jesus.

How much?  Help With Food Prep and maybe bring some, too!  Everything else is paid for.

Registration: Let us know you’re coming by 2/13 and we’ll coordinate food and such and get back with you.  (904)599-2889 or pastorjessealexander@gmail.com

What will we do?

The focus of this year’s retreat is prayer.  Praying for others in times of need.  Helping others learn to pray.  Praying for your own ministry.

Loose Schedule:

Friday: Arrive after 5:00

Light dinner, games, and movies.

Saturday: 8:00 Breakfast

Worship and prayer walk follows.

12:00 Lunch

1:00—5:00 Free time

6:00 Dinner

Worship and a time of prayer follows.

Games and movies follow that

Sunday: 8:00 Breakfast

9:00 Worship

10:00  Clean up and head out!

LoveFirst Coast 2017

Annual Retreat



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Worship Gathering Sunday Night

You are invited!  6:45pm in the St. Johns Room at Faith Community Church, 3450 CR210, 32259.
People tend to see themselves as the main character in the story of their lives.  We find a lot of grace, peace, and purpose when we accept that our stories are meant to find their place in God’s great story.  That’s one way of thinking about the work of Jesus with his followers.  They found their place in God’s story and as a result, they became heroes in their own stories.  Jesus still does that.  And then he sent them out to do the same for others.  Jesus still does that, too!
This Sunday night, we’ll be looking into how Jesus prepares his disciples to live like heroes in a great story and help others do the same.
Hope to see you there.
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Remember – A Reflection on Deuteronomy 10:1-11

You are invited to our next worship gathering is Sunday, January 28 in the St. Johns Room at FCC (3450 CR210, 32259.) Our annual retreat is February 16-18.  Let us know if you’d like to come along.)  

Moses was a preacher with an especially important message.  He had something to say. He wanted to make sure his people knew who God was, who they were, and what that meant.

After generations of slavery and forty years in the wilderness, his people (God’s people) were about to go into the Promised Land.  A new leader and a military campaign were before them.  More significantly, freedom was in front of them.  How would they handle it? Would they have the courage to move forward?  Or would they continue the foolishly pining away for the presumed safety and security of slavery in Egypt at the first sign of difficulty?  But really, Egypt was no longer an option.  They were moving into the Promised Land.  Would they live into the new quality of life God was offering them?  Or would they try to find an easier way, something more secure?

A similar choice is before us each day.

Inviting them to make the better choice, Moses says (and I’m paraphrasing.) “Remember who God is.  Remember who you are.  Live your lives in response to that reality.”  They were in a covenant relationship with the God of all creation and that covenant carried a sacred responsibility.  They were God’s Chosen People. They were brought into the covenant of Abraham.  The relationship was a blessing, and it carried a beautiful responsibility.  They were blessed to be a blessing to others.  Indeed, they were uniquely positioned to bless the whole world.  Notice the rich language as Moses praises God for who God is, and reflects on what God has done!  (Those are great skills for prayer, by the way.)

Notice how Moses is strategic and specific about who to bless: the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners in the land.  As a nation, they were to be intentional in showing care and kindness to the most vulnerable of their day.  In the ancient world, those groups easy to ignore, easy to mistreat.  And God’s the love of God’s heard flowed toward the vulnerable.  And it still does.

It is cool to me whenever I meet people who have a heart for those who, in our day, might be easy to ignore or mistreat.  I know people who feed the hungry, serve the homeless, spend time with refugees locally and abroad, care for teen moms and their babies, foster kids, support orphanages, and care for the elderly.  In spending time with them, I have noticed they have a sense of purpose, vitality, and joy!  I believe there’s a reason for that.  Whenever we intentionally place ourselves with the weak or vulnerable, we are aligning our hearts with God’s own heart – and that aligns us with part of God’s great purpose for our lives: to learn to love the way God loves.

The Children of Israel had a mixed record going forward.  They found themselves oppressed and enslaved over and over again.  The prophets would often point out injustice against the vulnerable and remind the people, especially those in power that they had forgotten who God was, who they were, and who they were to bless.  That reminder is always needed, you know.  I need it regularly, for sure.  Too much is at stake should we forget.  Perhaps like me, you are also tempted to settle for something easier, more certain.  So I encourage you to accept this word.  Remember this: by the working of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, you are brought into a covenant relationship with the God.  You call God, “Father.”  The Father has given you a place at his table, adopted you into his family, and he calls you his precious child.  He is a good Father.  And he does not spoil us, his children.  Rather he gives you and me a responsibility fitting for family members.  You and I are to live into this new reality, reflecting the heart of God to love and bless others, especially those to whom God’s own heart is drawn.

May you remember who God is and who you are.  May you live your life faithfully in response. May you find courage to make the better choice when tempted to settle and find much joy in this journey!

(Adapted from a devotional I prepared for Mandarin Presbyterian Church – Jesse)

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Discipleship That Changes The World

What is your strategy for changing the world in the right direction for a long time to come?  Jesus’ strategy was discipleship.  Thinking about our part in that work is our focus for tomorrow night’s worship gathering. (6:45 pm in the St. Johns Room at FCC – 3450 CR210, 32259)   We’ll be talking about how discipleship impacts people.

Discipleship has been a part of the language of the church from the very beginning.  Like many common words, we forget what it means or develop a corporate confusion about it.  As social networks, churches may even reinforce confusion about our common words – but that’s another topic.

This week, I have been thinking about how discipleship is understood in the churches and Christian circles I’ve spent time in.  I believe its pretty common to have partial definitions of discipleship.  When our definitions are partial, the concepts don’t fly well.  Like birds with unbalanced wings, they fly funny and are prone to crash.

One partial definition of disciple is “learner”.  When that definition takes hold, the work of discipleship is confused with things like course work or programs of Christian education.   In the churches I served, the paradigm of western education operated strongly.  There were education-appropriate levels of curriculum developed for children, youth, and adults.  The associated tasks were sitting in a class, being quite, paying attention and doing your homework.  The student was there to be taught.  For those who were “serious”, advanced courses could be found.  Much “advanced discipleship” material requires a high level of education (or effort) and calls for a steady commitment to take all the classes and “do the homework.”  One course I led called for theological reading, inductive Bible study, prayer, answering questions for reflection, and a series of twenty-six 90 minute bi-weekly meetings.  A friend showed me a “discipleship program” he was invited to take.  It involved a two-year long course commitment, a weekly meeting, a pile of work-books, and thousands of pages of college-level reading, followed by a two-year commitment to teach the course.   There were breaks for Christmas and summer.   This partial definition is biased toward the well-educated and sends the message that a disciple is a student and discipleship is an academic education.

Jesus had no problem working with the well-educated of his day, but it is likely that some of his first disciples were illiterate.  In Acts 4, the disciples he invested in were recognized to have been “unschooled and ordinary men”.  Faithful discipleship, as modeled by Jesus, was accessible to and transformed people from lower education levels.  Some of them would teach priests and lawyers, who would also be transformed.    And while Jesus taught and gathered people to listen, his approach does not look much like a weekly scheduled meeting with reading assignments in between.  The way Jesus made disciples doesn’t match the Christian education paradigm.

Another partial definition for disciple is “believer,” more specifically “someone who believes in Jesus for salvation”.  This partially defined approach to discipleship emphasizes evangelism.  Sometime back, I had breakfast with a man who had a ministry at a local high-school.  He began telling me about his “disciples” who were on athletes at the school.  After a while, it became clear that he had led these young men to profess their faith, thus they were “his disciples.”  I heard a “discipleship sermon” recently by a well-known preacher and I could summarize his message like this: “Your job is to make disciples, and making disciples means getting someone to believe in Jesus, helping them stand up in the Lord, and then moving on to get someone else to believe.”  The partial definition plays out like this: if a disciple is a believer, discipleship is evangelism.

Faithful discipleship certainly includes coming to trust in Jesus Christ for eternal life and to know him as Lord and Savior.  Clearly, Jesus invited his disciples to know him in this way (and more!)  But in the stories of Jesus, his first encounters with those who would become his disciples did not begin with an invitation to believe.  They began with an invitation to follow him.  Based on what we see in the gospels, following Jesus looked going, physically, where Jesus went while spending time with Jesus.  Believing in Jesus for eternal life, for the forgiveness of sins, and as God’s Son came, but it came later.  It seems that some of his disciples struggled to believe in him right through to the end of his ministry.  (Seriously.  Check out John 16:30 or Matthew 28:17.) But that did not stop Jesus from calling them his disciples.

Plainly, Jesus taught the disciples.  Clearly, Jesus encouraged them to believe in him. Discipleship included education and evangelism.   But his understanding of discipleship was less about imparting knowledge and inspiring belief and more imparting his life and life-style with those who accepted his invitation.  He intentionally invested in a dozen disciples.  As a result, that dozen gained skills for imitating Jesus.  They learned to preach what he preached, to do what he did, and to invite and empower others to do the same. He brought them with him as he proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, cast out demons, confronted injustice, and opened the eyes of the blind.  He taught them to do what they saw him doing.  (Had they been blind?) He didn’t move on until they were trained, and then he gave them his Spirit and sent them out to do the same. (John 20:21)  The disciples Jesus invested in invested in others.  They were disciples who made disciples just like Jesus had.  Knowing the truth and coming to believe in Jesus with confidence clearly mattered to Jesus, but his primary purpose as he walked with the twelve was so that they would learn from him how to live like him.

The way Jesus made disciples was not unlike what other 1st century Jewish rabbis did.  The difference was not his method of discipleship.   People of his day understood the relationship and what was involved.  The difference was Jesus himself.

Simply put, a disciple learns to imitate the master.  If we are disciples of Jesus, then we acknowledge, as the first disciples did, that Jesus is the master.  His life is the standard.  Our calling is to learn to imitate him.  Our commission is to invite and help others to do the same.

The pattern for making disciples in the New Testament is rooted in imitation. In I Corinthians 4:16-17, the Apostle Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.  For this reason, I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.  Paul wasn’t asking them to imitate him out of ego.  He was asking them to imitate Jesus based on his example of imitating Jesus.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says, we are to learn from Jesus “how to live our lives as he would live them if he were we.”   This is exactly what we see the twelve disciples doing in the gospels.  By being with Jesus, they learned from Jesus how to think, act, and live like he did.   The disciples watched Jesus and learned to imitate Jesus so well that when they went to new places, they would represent him well.  They would live out their lives as he would.  And they invited others to imitate Jesus by imitating them.  This simple pattern created a movement of discipleship.

And God worked and continues to work through people in this way to change the world in the right direction steadily and for a long time.  And the movement continues.

Have you found your place in this movement?

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