Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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“Take Away” Truths from James

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Have you ever eaten a meal that was so good you didn’t want it to end, even when your stomach was past the point of being satisfied?  Maybe you’ve asked for a take away box so you could savor it later and avoid that uncomfortably “beyond full” feeling.

For me, studying Beth Moore’s James:  Mercy Triumphs has been a bit like eating my fill of an unforgettable meal and still wanting more.  Packed with truth layered on top of truth, the book of James is going to take a while for me to digest.  I predicted that studying it would change us, and in my life, it certainly has.  As we wrap up our final week of study, let’s savor what we’ve learned.   Let’s pack up the truths and take them with us after we answer the final question and write the last verse in our workbooks.  Instead of having the study become a fond memory; let’s allow it to transform our lives so that we can be doers of the word, not just hearers.

In the final week of study, Beth Moore describes the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70.  She says:  “Yet before a single stone was thrown to the ground, a cornerstone was set in place.  Upon it rolled one living stone after another so that, by the time the sanctuary built by human hands was destroyed, another constructed by God’s hand was under way…Look really closely with your minds eye…gaze further and further up that heap until you make it to the stack where the 21st century sets in place.  See us? You and me?  There we are, two living stones”  (p. 204-205).  All that we’ve been challenged to put into practice while studying James is making us living stones- a human temple used for God’s glory.

“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.  The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord.  You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.”  Ephesians 2:19-22

As I think back on the last seven weeks of study, there are a few truths I’ll carry with me in my “to go” box:

Not just hearing the word, but doing what it says:  I pray God will continue showing me where and how to apply His word to daily life.  Whether it is caring for the needy with compassion or seeking wisdom from heaven, I want to live out the things I’m learning more consistently.

Taming my tongue:  Since studying and writing about James 2, I’ve become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit prompting me to keep my tongue in check.  I seem to fail daily, but continue striving to let my words be pleasing to God and positive and encouraging to others.  I am much more cognizant about my conversation topics and what things would be better left unsaid.

Submitting my long and short term plans to God:  I spend a significant portion of time planning and thinking about the future.   I am working hard to submit this to God daily.  In the past few weeks several major disruptions to my schedule have given me a chance to put this into practice immediately.   (God certainly has a sense of humor!)  I’m learning to see interruptions to my schedule as divine appointments where He is giving me an opportunity to serve or bless someone else.

Surrendering insecurity:  Beth Moore hits me right between the eyes in her Session Five video when she says: “Insecurity is when your own mind turns on you.”  I’ve been reminded that insecurity is just another form of self- absorption.  When I’m consumed with myself and my perceived flaws and failings, I’m incapable of seeing beyond myself to impact others.  My eyes are on myself, not Jesus.  This is an ongoing area that needs to be surrendered in my life.

Rejecting cynicism:  In her Session Six video, Beth Moore addresses the perils of Christians who fall into cynicism.  I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a Bible teacher speak on this subject and it certainly struck a cord in me.  The trap of cynicism has ensnared me for much of my life. It is convicting to hear it defined as “carnality that thinks it’s smart and that carries an air of superiority.”  The idea that cynicism can be fueled by disappointment with people has also been a reality in my life.  This is an area where I need to be on my guard and continually looking to Jesus to renew my mind.

How about you?  What will you remember long after you’ve closed the James:  Mercy Triumphs workbook and tucked it on your bookshelf? Look back through the lessons and write down the powerful truths you want to remember and apply to your life.  What will you carry in your “take away” box as you move forward?  Post a comment and let others hear what spoke to you from this powerful book.

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The Mush Pot

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“Is any one of you in trouble?  He should pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let him sing songs of praise.  Is any one of you sick?  He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”  James 5:13-16

 We called it “The Mush Pot,” probably left over from when we played Duck, Duck, Goose as kids.  It started back in my college days when I worked at a Christian houseboat and waterski camp in the summers.    Prior to the start of the season, the camp staff would gather for a weekend of training, prayer and fellowship.  As we shared our hopes and fears about ministering to the many kids who we’d meet over the summer, each of us would take a turn sitting in “The Mush Pot” encircled by the other staff members.  We would lay our hands on the one in the middle and pray.  The Holy Spirit was alive and active in us, prompting our prayers and blessing all of us in the process.  I can remember the butterflies I’d feel in my stomach when it was my turn to sit on the floor of the houseboat while everyone gathered around to lay hands on me.  It was both overwhelming and inspiring to hear the things people prayed specifically for me.  I came away knowing that God would give me exactly what I needed to love the kids and serve Him well.

 My oldest son is now old enough to go to the camp where I first learned this practice, but  “The Mush Pot” tradition has continued to be a part of my life.   Looking back, I can see how God has increased my faith by giving me opportunities to offer and receive prayer.  I can picture intimate and tearful gatherings around hospital beds praying for different friends and family members.  Some were healed, some went home to Heaven, but all of us experienced peace through those sacred gatherings, even in the most clinical settings.   I can also remember laying hands on people to pray for them in different small groups and Bible Studies over the years.  Some of the most meaningful prayer times have happened spontaneously in unlikely places.  I remember crying my eyes out while a friend prayed for me out on the mountain biking trail during a time of grief.   The memories are powerful and tender.  It was an honor and privilege to take part in them.

We don’t need to wait for the “really big” things to ask for prayer or to offer it.  Beth Moore says it well in James:  Mercy Triumphs:  “If it has to do with us, then it has something to do with Him… we have an open invitation to a divine invasion. If we’re willing, God is our song when we are happy, our escape when we are tempted, our hope when we’re despairing, our joy in tribulation, our strength in weakness, and our immortality in dying”  (p. 176).  She goes on to say:  “A pair of hands clasped in earnest prayer is the best means we have this side of Heaven to hang onto Jesus for dear life”  (p. 178).  As far as I can tell, there is nothing that is “off limits” for receiving prayer.  If it’s happening in your life, it is worth asking for God’s intervention.

Sometimes we can be fooled into thinking God doesn’t want to be bothered by our needs and we try to handle things on our own.  We might feel undeserving or awkward asking others to pray for us.  I remember the first time I walked to the front of a church to ask for prayer during Communion.  Struggling with the weight of a painful situation, I needed some comfort and wisdom.  Even though I’d seen other people go forward for prayer, I’d never been one of them. For some reason, that day I just felt prompted to get out of my seat.  The woman standing in front greeted me warmly.  I fumbled through a vague explanation for why I needed prayer and then stood stiffly as she held me close and prayed.  I don’t remember a word she said, but I recall being amazed that she knew what to pray with the small amount of material I’d shared with her.  I returned to my seat relieved and at peace.  My difficulty didn’t end immediately, but calling in reinforcements gave me the strength I needed to persevere in trusting God.  I’d been carrying around the burden all on my own strength when God had been waiting all the time for me to share it with Him.  Having another person pray for me made all the difference.

Sometimes we can also be fooled into thinking that we aren’t “righteous” enough to offer to pray for another person.  However, the Bible makes it clear that if we have accepted Christ and are living for Him, we can claim His righteousness as our own:  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them…We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us…God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”  (2 Corinthians 5:17-19a, 20-21).  We have righteousness, what we need to ask for is confidence!  If you find yourself in a situation where a person needs prayer, you may feel awkward or fearful offering.   Let me encourage you to ask God for courage.   There is something powerful about praying for a person in their presence instead of just saying “I’ll pray for you” and doing it later.  Jesus says in Matthew 18:20:  “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

In the Session Five and Six videos for James: Mercy Triumphs, Beth Moore points out two subtle adversaries to our faith:  cynicism and insecurity.   Maybe you’ve watched others walk to the front of the church and have thought:  “That person must really have problems” or “Why do they have to be so dramatic and get up in front of everyone?”  Maybe you’ve known someone needed prayer, but didn’t offer because you thought she would think you were “too religious.”  Cynicism and insecurity stunt our ability to be used by God and rob us of opportunities to be a blessing to others.  I know this from personal experience and pray regularly that God will rid me of those destructive trains of thought.

It’s been over 20 years since I first sat in “The Mush Pot” to be prayed over by my fellow staff members at summer camp.  It’s been less than two weeks since I last laid hands on someone in “The Mush Pot” to pray for God’s intervention in her life.  In all the time in between, I have rich memories of connecting with others through accessing the power of God together in prayer.   I’ve been blessed beyond measure witnessing the powerful and effective prayers offered by followers of Jesus.

Do you have a “Mush Pot” experience you’d like to share?  How has joining with others in prayer blessed you and them?  How have you overcome your fears about praying with and for others?  Post a comment and share your thoughts.


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Committing Our Calendars to God

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“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”  James 4:13-15

As a born planner, this has never been one of my favorite passages of Scripture.   I am alternately irritated and inspired by people who thoroughly live “in the moment.”  I like schedules and lists.  My mom can attest to the fact that once I started elementary school, I planned all my birthday parties.  The guest lists, invitations, games, favors and food were carefully selected months in advance.   Now that I am a mom, I jokingly refer to myself as “Julie the Cruise Director” because of all the planning I do for my boys.  (If you didn’t watch “The Love Boat” in the 70’s and 80’s, just ignore that example and read on).  When my older son was two or three, he would wake up, rub his eyes and say, “What do you have for me today, Mom?”  I hope eventually I can show God that same kind of trust daily.

The compulsion to plan sometimes arises out of fear or the need to control.  We think if we can plan something well enough, we can avoid what we fear.  Similarly, we think if we have control over something, we can avert mistakes or failures.  We have the illusion of control over our lives, but James reminds us that God is the only one with real control.  It’s not a sin to make plans, but it’s important to entrust them to God.  I’m learning to ask for His leading instead of telling Him to bless my unilateral decisions.  People often quote Jeremiah 29:11,  “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  However, my favorite part of this passage comes in verse 12:  “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  This requires time, patience and trust.

God has bigger and better plans than we do.  Beth Moore says it well in James: Mercy Triumphs:  “God is the one with the real plan….We have all sorts of plans jotted on our calendars pertaining to the next year, but they’re mostly based on theory.  His is the only day-timer based on certainty.  That’s one reason why spending time with God in His Word in the morning is so vital.  He wants to prepare us for the reality of our upcoming day.  Not our theory”  (p.152).   Abiding with Him closely is the best way I’ve found to surrender my plans and to let Him shape them.  Many mornings I come to Him fretting over something and leave feeling grounded and at peace.  That doesn’t necessarily mean He gives me a clear-cut answer, but He does change my perspective.  I don’t have to know the details of what the future holds because I know God will be with me, no matter what.

If you are not in the habit of spending time with God daily, let me encourage you to give it a try.  Pick a length of time that feels reasonable, but that will stretch you a bit too.  One day isn’t enough, 365 might be too ambitious.  Maybe it’s two weeks; maybe it’s the forty days of Lent (which starts on Feb. 13 this year).  Just pick an amount of time and commit to seeking God daily for the duration.

If you are not a morning person, pray and ask God to give you the self-discipline to get up earlier.  Plan ahead by turning off the TV or computer; close your book or iPad instead of staying up late.  That way you can wake up to be with God first thing in the morning.  Ask Him to help you make it a priority.  He honors our desires to spend time with Him and will enable you to follow through.  Starting your day with God puts you in the right frame of mind to face whatever comes your way.   It is even more important than your need for coffee or a hot shower in the morning.

Not sure how to start?  There is no “magic formula” so don’t worry.  Some people like the ritual of doing the same thing at the same time in the same place every day; others like to mix it up.  The good news is that God is there with you in it, no matter what you choose to do.  Here are a few ideas to try:

-Start by praying and asking God to reveal Himself to you and to show you what He wants you to learn

-Read a devotional to get your mind focused.  There are many to choose from; two of my favorites are Jesus Calling by Sarah Young or My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers.

-Read the Bible; if you are involved in a study I think it is OK to incorporate your homework into this time as long as you are using it as a way to hear from God and not just trying to check it off your “to do” list.  If you’re not in a study, try reading the passages mentioned in the devotional so you can see their context.  Another idea is to choose a book of the Bible and to read through a small portion daily (start with something in the New Testament).

-Pray:  You can talk out loud, pray silently, write your prayers in a journal or put on Christian music and sing your prayers.  Consider mixing up your routine by getting up early some mornings and taking a walk while you pray; try listening to worship music on headphones and using it to prompt your prayers.  When you pray, start with praising God for who He is and thanking Him for what He’s done.  I used to think prayer was just asking Him to do what I wanted, but I’m learning that it’s more about aligning my heart to His.  Sometimes I intentionally don’t ask anything about specific situations and just spend time thanking or praising Him.

-Listen to music: throughout your day, try listening to music that focuses your thoughts on God and reminds you of His truth.  If you are not one who follows Christian music, listening to KLOVE at 107.3 FM or The Message on satellite radio are great places to start.

Most importantly, DO NOT beat yourself up if you miss a day!!  We have a God of grace and He is not keeping a record book logging the minutes of the time you spend with Him.  If you miss a few days, don’t give up!  Keep trying.   You will be blessed and God will be honored.

Post a comment and share what you’re learning about submitting your schedule to God!


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Sticks and Stones

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“Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  James 3:5-6

The kids are joking and teasing before class starts.  It seems harmless at first until one boy pokes a girl sitting near him.  Holding up a hastily drawn cartoon he exclaims:  “You know what’s uglier than this, picture, Sasha?  Your face!!”  The kids around him laugh.  She winces, but tries to smile and act like it doesn’t bother her.

Jarred by his words, I ask: “What did you just say?”  The grin vanishes from his face, he slumps his shoulders and responds quietly: “I was just joking.” Trying to contain my anger, I address the class of 5th graders who I teach weekly after school:  “I don’t EVER want to hear that kind of joking again.  We do not talk to each other unkindly in this class.  We don’t make fun of each other.  The cruel words you say in a joke are never forgotten.  I still remember mean things kids said to me when I was your age.”  They are startled by the emotion in my words and sit quietly.

Embarrassed, the boy turns to Sasha without being prompted and says sheepishly:  “Sorry, Sasha, I really was joking.”  She tries to smile again but can’t find words to respond.

My emotional response to this boy’s cruel joke came from deep inside me. When I was a child, people used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Later in life I realized the saying really isn’t true.  Maybe that’s why I relate so much to Beth Moore’s comment in James:  Mercy Triumphs when she says:  “Usually when I’m most passionate about a subject in my teaching, it is either because I struggle with it myself or because I’ve been personally injured by it” (p. 113-114).  Both hold true for me with this topic.  We may be more sophisticated than fifth graders slinging insults, but our hurtful words are no less damaging to our relationships and our community.

The tongue is the strongest muscle in the body relative to its size.  It also wields amazing power and reveals the contents of our thoughts and characters.  Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 “The mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.”  James is one of the shortest books in the Bible and covers many topics quickly, so it is significant that a large portion of one chapter discusses the tongue and its dangers in such detail.

I’ve had to ask for God’s help consistently to keep my tongue under control.  There are subtle ways I use my words in a hurtful manner.   My guess is that some of them may resonate with you, too.   Here are a few:

Silence when words are needed:

When a conversation turns negative about a person, I’m more inclined to remain silent than to re-direct it for fear of seeming judgmental or morally superior.  It’s easy to speak with boldness to a room of 5th graders who look to me as an authority; it’s much more challenging to cut off the negative words of my peers.  When I do speak up, the words must be chosen carefully, spoken with sensitivity and tempered with grace.  Sometimes I’m too cowardly to do it.  I’m learning to ask God to give me the wisdom and the words when I find myself in those uncomfortable moments where silence might indicate I agree when I don’t.

False Intimacy:

Sometimes we share negative thoughts about someone to feel connected to the person with whom we’re sharing.  We may say something critical under the guise of “needing to vent” and be totally tainting the hearer’s view about the other person.  Conversely, we might goad someone into sharing information that they shouldn’t.  Maybe you’ve been in a situation where a friend shares, “ I probably shouldn’t say this but…”  Do you stop your friend right there or encourage her/him to continue?  Maybe your curiosity gets the best of you and you say, “Go on and tell me, you can trust me.”  You feel privileged to be hearing private information and want to believe you’re mature enough to handle it.  Even if you don’t ever share what’s been said, you’ve been impacted and influenced by it.

Addressing Hurts:

I’m learning the importance of talking to a person instead of about a person-especially in regard to being hurt or frustrated.  If I have a problem with someone, the Biblical response is to address it with that person directly.  Matthew 18:15-17 gives very clear instructions for how to handle this.  Nowhere does the Bible tell us to talk about our problem with others and get sympathy to fuel our fires of indignation.  We also risk unfairly tainting someone else’s opinion of that person.  This can tear a community apart.

Sharing Stories:

If someone has shared personal information with us, it is important to remember that it is not ours to re-tell.  No matter how innocent the information may seem, it does not belong to us.  This goes for stories about our kids, spouses and parents too.  There is no greater way to break trust than to tell a story that wasn’t meant to be re-told.  Sometimes a friend may share something in confidence that we’re tempted to repeat to a different person who doesn’t know her, thinking this is “safe” (especially if we leave names out).  Several times I’ve been told a story about a stranger and later on I’ve met the person.  It’s awkward because I already know a story about him or her that I shouldn’t.  It causes me to prejudge.  When a story is told because it is interesting or “juicy,” we make the person it’s about into a character in a drama rather than a fellow human being.  We can talk about others the way we’d discuss characters in a book or movie.  The difference is they are real people who can be hurt by this.

Prayer Requests:

Asking for prayer for someone else can be a veiled form of gossip.  Sometimes a story is so sad or so ugly that we ache for the person and want others to pray too.  We need to be careful that we don’t share more than we should and that we ask permission before repeating the story and all of its details. Consider asking a friend for prayer about how you can be supporting the person instead of sharing all the ugly details that she might not need to know.  God knows the person’s situation regardless and Romans 8:26 tell us the Holy Spirit will intercede to tell God exactly what is needed!

Positive vs. Negative:

While James spends much time discussing the negative effects of the tongue, it can also have a positive impact.  If our tongues can praise God, aren’t they also capable of praising people?  Don’t we have the chance to set the tone in a situation by the words we say?  Every day we have opportunities to speak with kindness, affirmation and love to those around us- whether it is the checker at Trader Joe’s, our spouses or the neighbor next door.   Our words can bring life and hope to people.  The smallest positive comment can put a smile on someone’s face for the rest of the day.  Sometimes we’re better at affirming people behind their backs than to their faces.  Try sharing your positive thoughts directly and see what a blessing you can be!

If you’ve been convicted by any of the things, know that you are not alone.   I write from experience- these are real struggles in my life.   Through prayer we can trust God to help us keep a reign on our tongues and speak with wisdom.

Where have you seen the power of words in your life?  Post a comment and share some ideas that will inspire others to use words for good instead of evil.

Click on the link below to listen to Josh Wilson’s song “Forest Fire” that is based on James 3:5-6. Music is a powerful way to help God’s truth stick in your mind.