Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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One “Yes” Leads to Another

IMG_5129“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

 I was talking with a friend about Lysa TerKeurst’s What Happens When Women Say “Yes” to God and she said, “Saying ‘yes’ to God is about the little things every day.  Over time, they have a cumulative effect and add up to something pretty amazing.”  So often we think saying “yes” is only about the really big things, but it is a series of little “yeses” all along the way that prepare us for those larger scale things God wants to do in and through us.

Looking back, I see that God used a series of “Yes” responses in my life in powerful ways.  Each affirmative answer was layered on top of the one that went before it.  God had a perfect plan from the start- He was just waiting for different people to play their parts.   Here is how the story goes…

Six years ago as summer was winding down, I bumped into an acquaintance that was volunteering at Back to School Registration.  We chatted briefly and just as I was about to say goodbye, she asked, “Hey, Marybeth, I’m inviting some women from school to be in a small group at my church Bible study.  Are you interested in joining it?” Julie was not someone I knew well and from my place of insecurity, I saw her as president of everything and friends with everyone.  She was always nice to me, I just felt intimidated because of my own issues.  Still, I’d been praying since school got out for a Bible study with more Christian women from my kids’ public school.  This seemed like the answer to my prayers so I said,  “Yes, I’m interested.  How do I sign up?”

A year later, one of the Bible study’s coordinators invited me to co-facilitate a group for the following year.  I was flattered, but I didn’t consider myself the “women’s ministry” type.  My passion had always been working with teens, and I wasn’t sure I was equipped to shepherd my peers.  However, I sensed God calling me to branch out and see how my past experience could translate to impacting women.  So, I said, “Yes.”  I was blessed beyond measure by facilitating.  I grew deeper in my faith and in relationships with godly women of all ages.

A few years into facilitating, my older son was starting Middle School when I received a phone call, “Would you be willing to serve as our school’s Parent Education Representative?”  I’d never been involved much with PTA before.  However, the more I learned about the position, the more I sensed God nudging me to accept it.  With my past experience working in a public high school, it felt like a good fit.  And so, I said, “Yes.”  Almost immediately, God gave me an idea that I had the opportunity to implement through my PTA position.

In my new role, I approached one of our pastors, Mark, with a big request, “I love what my husband has been learning in the men’s group at church.  Would you be willing to take the time to adapt it for a Parent Education evening at my son’s school?”  He said, “Are you kidding?  I pray for opportunities like this!  Yes!”  A few months later, Mark, spoke to 150 men in our public school about “Raising Boys to be of Character.”  Our principal had never seen so many dads show up for an event in all her years of education.  She was truly baffled and amazed.  Mark was even asked to return three months afterwards to do a follow up workshop.  Now, two years later, Mark has spoken about raising boys at least a dozen times and continues to be a sought after speaker in our public schools.  His message has impacted hundreds of lives because he said, “Yes” to the idea God inspired in me when I said “Yes” to serving on the PTA.

After Mark spoke at my son’s school that first time, I was so excited that I shared during an open microphone time at Bible study.  Later that morning, a woman approached me, “Hi, I’m Kirsten.  I loved your sharing today and would like to write about it on a local news website.  Can I interview you?”  The answer was easy, I said, “Yes.”

Kirsten sent an e-mail with a few follow up questions after our interview.  A tag line under her name caught my attention:  “Are you a mom who likes to write?  Join our Writing Moms group.”  As a former English teacher, I’d been writing for years, I just hadn’t shared it with many people because I was too insecure.  Tentatively, I probed for more information and finally responded “Yes” when she invited me to a writers group meeting.  My heart pounded as I walked in, but the women were warm, friendly and encouraging.  Instead of feeling intimidated by them, I felt welcomed and validated.

A few months later, Kirsten approached me, “Would you consider writing a blog on Rich Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel for the news website I write for?”  I’d barely ever read a blog and had no idea what writing one entailed.  Our church was studying the book, but I knew very little about it.  On top of that, our house was being remodeled and we were already had a lot going on. However, I’d been praying for subject matter to write about and an audience with whom I could share it.  Now, both were being offered to me.  After talking and praying with my husband, we realized I needed to say, “Yes.”   We decided God would equip me with the time and inspiration I needed to write the blogs.

My involvement with the local news website opened another door for me, enabling me to write a different blog about our home remodel.  Over a year and a half I chronicled all of the crazy things that happened and what God was teaching me through them.  Both blogs enabled me to share stories about God’s transforming power on a public non-Christian website.  I was amazed to see how God used the stories to touch lives.

By the spring of 2012, I sensed God preparing me for a new challenge.  I’d been steadily co-facilitating a small group and loving every minute of it. However, I needed to say “No” to make room for a new “Yes.”  It was a step of faith and obedience for me to put aside facilitating without knowing what would come next.  A few months later, God made it clear when Karen, the Bible Study Coordinator, asked me to start writing a blog for the next year.

Although God had been preparing me, this newest “Yes” stretched me in significant ways.  First and foremost, I was not technology savvy and felt overwhelmed about setting up and maintaining my own blog.  Secondly, I realized writing about our studies meant I not only had to complete them weekly, but that I had to get them done early.   I also had to come up with something worthwhile to say every week.  With trepidation, I said, “Yes,” knowing I would have to rely on God every step of the way.

I could not have kept up the pace of completing the studies and writing something weekly if God had not given me the time and inspiration along with the support of a faithful prayer team. Looking back, it’s clear how each small “Yes” prepared me for the next one.  God never revealed more than I needed to know, He just asked me to trust Him enough to answer “Yes” one step at a time.

There have been a few other side benefits to saying, “Yes” over the past six years.  My faith has grown significantly.  I’ve made some amazing new friendships by rubbing shoulders with different people.  My confidence in God’s ability to equip me and use me has grown, and my insecurities have diminished.   People who intimidated me because of their strength have become trusted friends who have cheered me along.

Any person who says “Yes” to God has stories to share.  Hopefully my “Yes” moments have given you a glimpse of that, but now it’s your turn.  Take a moment to look back at your own “Yes” stories and share one.  Then, pray that God will prepare you for the “Yeses” yet to come.

One of my main motivations for saying, “Yes” has been to invite God to further His kingdom here on earth. Last fall I discovered the Irish band Rend Collective Experiment and their inspiring song called “Build Your Kingdom Here”. It has become a prayer for me each time I hear it. Click on the link below- you’ll want to stand up and shout, “Yes” to God.

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Peeling off Self-Confidence and Finding God-Confidence

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“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV

 In the early spring when the hills are green and the flowers are blooming, there is nothing better than taking a mountain bike ride.  The only “down side” is that early spring includes cold mornings, which means I have to layer up clothes if I don’t want to freeze.   There are days when I’m tempted to leave my down vest on before I head out, but I know I’ll regret it later.  As my body adjusts to the air and my muscles warm up, I begin to peel off the layers one by one.  There is nothing worse than being out on the trail encumbered with a bunch of gear that I no longer need.

This is a bit like the difference between placing confidence in us and placing confidence in God. Just like my layers of clothing on a cold bike ride, we layer ourselves up with things on the outside, hoping they will make us feel complete on the inside.   Starting in childhood and moving into adulthood, we learn to base our confidence on grades, awards, activities, social connections, appearance, athletic ability and other skills.  As long as we “show well,” we feel good about ourselves.  However, this is an exhausting cycle to maintain.  Someone is always just a little better or has achieved just a little more.   Even great friendships can have rough patches that leave us feeling vulnerable and uncertain.  There is nothing inherently “wrong” with the things I’ve listed, but if we pursue them to feel good about ourselves, they become layers we pile on that only bog us down.  Self-confidence proves to be elusive, like catching a slippery fish in our hands only to have it wriggle out and swim away.

In contrast, Lysa TerKeurst coins the term “God- confidence,” which is like the warmth that comes from inside me once I get going on my ride.  It is what causes me to peel off protective layers and expose myself to the elements because my heat source is coming from my interior instead of being piled on my exterior.  Much the same, God- confidence is not dependent upon our circumstances, achievements or approval from other people.  It is something we can carry inside of us at all times when we claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Self-confidence says:  “I look good enough to walk in that door and impress people.”

God confidence says:  “I am loved enough by God to walk in that door and show kindness to others.”

Self-confidence says:  “I’m smart enough and well-educated enough to carry on a conversation with this group.”

God-confidence says:  “I know the truth of who I am in Christ, He will give me the words to say in this situation.”

Self-confidence says: “I’m willing to say, ‘yes’ because this is comfortable and safe, I’ve done it before and I know I’m good at it.”

God-confidence says:  “This is beyond me, but I am going to trust God to lead me and equip me according to His plans.”

Self-confidence says:  “I’m acceptable because I’m included in the group.  Because other people validate me, I know I’m worth something.”

God-confidence says:  “Whether people include me or not will not shake my confidence.  I’m at peace knowing that God loves me, whether I’m overlooked or included by people”

Self-confidence says:  “Life is good because circumstances are situated in my favor.”

God-confidence says:  “Whether my circumstances are good or bad, I trust that God is in control.”

Self-confidence may falter when:

-The “perfect outfit” we bought a few years ago suddenly seems dated

-We gain a few pounds

-A person we love doesn’t seem to have time for us

-We hear about a gathering and we weren’t included

-People rave about the person who was filling in for something we usually do

-An illness or injury keeps us from our usual activities

-We aren’t receiving as much affirmation as we’d like

-Our social schedule isn’t full

-Our social media “friends” seem to take better vacations, have cuter kids, and do more “cool” stuff than our families

-Our accomplishments or achievements pale in comparison to someone else’s

-We make a huge mistake

-We’re not “up” on the latest news/technology/fashion/music/trends

-We compare ourselves to others

-No one notices when we’re gone or welcomes us when we return

God-confidence may falter when:

-We take our eyes off Him

-We focus on our problems and let them magnify

-We look to other people to reassure us, fill us up or give us approval

-We focus on our exteriors instead of our interiors

-We let a difficult situation breed stress in us

-We can’t trust God with things we don’t understand

Being God-confident doesn’t mean we’ll always feel great about ourselves, but we’ll know that we have a God who loves us and will never leave us.  It means trusting Him to give us the power we need instead of trying to conjure it up on our own.  God-confidence leaves us unencumbered by the things that might otherwise weigh us down.  We can walk confidently not because of who we are or what we’ve done, but because of who God is and what Jesus did for us on the cross.

I love the way Lysa TerKeurst describes this God-confidence in What Happens When Women Say “Yes” to God:  “This is the way God wants me to dance through life…In my mind’s eye He is there.  The touch of His gaze wraps about me, comforts me, assures me, and makes the world seem strangely dim.  As long as my gaze is locked on his, I dance and he smiles.  The snickers and jeers of others fade away.  Though I hear their razor sharp intentions, they are unable to pierce my heart and distract my focus.  Even my own stumblings don’t cause the same feelings of defeat.  My steps so often betray the desire of my heart, but it is not my perfect performance that captures His attention.  Rather, it is my complete dependence on Him that He notices” (pp. 88-89).

When we place our confidence in God, there should be no reason for insecurity, fear or feelings of inadequacy. If Christ lives in us, we already have everything we need, it is just a matter of believing it to be true and then living with our gaze fixed on Him.

“My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken”  (Psalm 62:1-2)

One way I find perspective when I’ve drifted from God-confidence is to listen to great music.  Click on the links below to hear two songs that help me regain my focus:  “We Won’t be Shaken” by Building 429 and “Strangely Dim” by Francesca Battistelli.


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Beach Glass: Living the Reality of Jesus in Our Lives

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Recently I was talking with a friend about making life choices that display the reality of Jesus in our lives. She stopped and said:  “It’s about incorporating our lives into God instead of trying to incorporate God into our lives.”  So often we try to fit God into a box or a category in our lives.  We may be great at talking about our relationships with God when we’re at church or Bible Study.  It’s easy to be kind when we sign up for a Missions day or an outreach event.  We’re willing to be interrupted when it fits into our schedules conveniently.   But if we’re really serious about the idea of saying “yes” to God, then He doesn’t just want to be a compartment in our lives; He wants to be the center.

Lysa TerKeurst says:  “I remind myself often that people don’t care to meet my Jesus until they meet the reality of Jesus in my life”  (p. 70 What Happens When Women Say “Yes” to God).  Maybe another way to put it is:  who am I when no one else is looking?  How do I react when things don’t go the way I want or people don’t perform according to my expectations?  This may reveal more about who Jesus is in our lives than who we are at church on Sunday or Bible Study on Thursday.

So often our reactions to frustrations are rooted in the flesh and we have a simple knee-jerk response.  Instead of stopping to pray and asking God’s Spirit to guide us, we just do what comes naturally, which isn’t usually the best plan.

There is no way to sustain being more like Jesus on our own strength.  We can’t just “try harder.”  The only way to do it is to abide in Him and let Him do the rest: “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5

If we rely on our own wisdom instead of seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we are taking matters into our own hands and missing what God has for us.  “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.  This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.”  Proverbs 3:7-8

Here are a few things that might impede the reality of Jesus in our lives:

Worry-

When worry swallows us up, we tend to become inwardly focused; we are unaware of the world around us and de-sensitized to the needs of others.  We are so consumed with our own issues that we can become self-absorbed without realizing it.   Maybe you have some regular topics that you worry about in your life: your kids, finances, health, relationships, overwhelming responsibilities.  If you want to experience the reality of Jesus in your life, try letting Him in on your worries and letting Him show you a new perspective.

“Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” 1 Peter 5:7.

“You will keep in perfect peace
 those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.”  Isaiah 26:3

Challenging People-

Sometimes we encounter people who make it difficult for us to experience the reality of Jesus in our lives.  Rather than avoiding them or trying harder to deal with them on your own strength, try praying and asking God to give you the strength you need to love as He loves.  Pray that God will open your eyes to see the person in a new light and to have a better understanding of him or her.  Pray that God will use the challenge of being in relationship with that person to refine you.   The Bible has much to say about our response to people.  One passage that covers many topics concisely is Romans 12:9-21:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: `It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Challenging/ Uncomfortable Circumstances-

Lysa talks about “small tests” that we face that make it a challenge to live the reality of Jesus.  If you find yourself struggling “to stay godly when things in life go awry,” try asking God what He wants to teach you and how you can grow (p.69).  So often we’re focused on wanting God to “fix” something.  We want Him to do it the way we want and we miss out on what He is trying to teach us.  If we really believe that Romans 8:28 is true, then we need to ask God to show us the good in situations when we can’t find it on our own:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Prayer

If you find yourself in a situation that needs an infusion of the reality of Jesus, try praying a simple one-line prayer.  Better yet, start your day praying and then be on the lookout for how God is at work.  Here are few suggestions for quick prayers:

“Renew my mind”

“God, I don’t have what I need for this situation, but you do.  Please fill in where I’m lacking.”

“Align my heart and will to yours.”

“Give me eyes to see this person or situation as you see it.”

“Pour out your Holy Spirit on me.  Help me to glorify you and bless others today.”

“Show me where you are at work and inviting me to join you today.”

An entry in Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling sums it up well.  Written as if Jesus were speaking directly to us, it says:

“When you are shaken out of your comfortable routines, grip My hand tightly and look for growth opportunities.  Instead of bemoaning the loss of your comfort, accept the challenge of something new.  I lead you on from glory to glory, making you fit for My kingdom.  Say yes to the ways I work in your life.  Trust Me and don’t be afraid.”  (April 15 entry)

Every day we face new challenges that give us opportunities to trust God and to see the reality of Jesus in our lives.  Imagine a shard of glass on the beach- it starts out sharp and dangerous. However, over time sand, water, rocks and even other pieces of glass buff it.  What was once jagged and menacing becomes rounded and smooth through a process of constant rubbing.  God can do the same thing in our lives when we  allow Him to use daily challenges that rub us the wrong way to teach us. Our rough edges will begin to smooth out as we let Jesus have His way with us.  Over time, others will recognize the reality of Him in our lives too.

Click on the link below to listen to “Live Like That” by Sidewalk Prophets.  It is an inspiring song about living the reality of Jesus in your life.


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Being Open Handed is a State of Mind

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His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.  For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure; they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  2 Peter 1:3-8

Imagine a clenched fist.  The physical posture represents an internal state of mind.   It might reveal a struggle to maintain our own control and comfort.  It could involve an unwillingness to be inconvenienced in our schedules.  Maybe it represents clinging to anger, bitterness, or un-forgiveness.  Perhaps it involves not sharing a talent we have that would bless someone else.  It could represent a heart that is hard and unwilling to be softened.  Maybe a certain person comes to mind when you picture it, or maybe you think of yourself.

Watching someone with clenched fists blossom into a person who is open handed is amazing to witness.  Lysa Ter Keurst describes it well:  “When we surrender to Him, we acknowledge that He knows what’s best for us and that everything we have belongs to Him.  Our posture is openhanded, enabling us to receive God’s many blessings- blessings that enable us to know and experience Him every day”  (What Happens When Women Say “Yes” to God p. 41).

For the past year, I’ve watched this process unfold in the life of an acquaintance that has become a dear friend.  I knew Debbie for years through volunteering at school, but never spent time with her until our boys ended up on a team together.  Sitting on the sidelines of a lacrosse game last spring, I was taken by surprise when she asked:  “So, how do you make time for church during your kids’ sports seasons?”   We’d never talked about attending church before and I was happy to hear someone else on the team cared about making it a priority.

As the season continued, our conversations on the sidelines became discussions over lunch or out on a trail.  Debbie was hungry for spiritual knowledge and eager to grow.  She welcomed suggestions for books to read and peppered me with questions about my faith, my prayer life and my knowledge of scripture.  She was a Christian, but was hungering to grow deeper in her walk with God.

Like most moms, she was extremely busy with her own activities and taking care of her husband and three kids.  I felt privileged by the time she spent with me and prayed that God would soften her heart towards the idea of joining a Bible study.  I sensed she was ready for it, but wondered if she would be able to make the time.

Out on a bike ride one day last spring, I brought it up:  “So, I go to this women’s Bible Study on Thursdays that I think you’d like.   Sign ups for the fall are starting soon, do you want to do it?”  She thought for a minute:  “I might be interested, but there’s a golf clinic that I might do on Thursday mornings.  Let me think about it.”  I started praying that Debbie’s desire to grow spiritually would be stronger than her desire to improve her golf game. Her heart had been softening for months, but I could see that her fist was still clenched around her schedule and she wasn’t sure if regular time in Bible study fit into her plan.

I prayed for Debbie all summer and waited for her to give an answer.  Finally, in late August, she called:  “I’ll commit to the first semester study, but not to the whole year.”  Her fist was beginning to unclench.  I prayed more.

Throughout the fall, Debbie came to Bible Study consistently and did her homework diligently.  She was overwhelmed trying to absorb so much new information, but doing her best to keep up.  The women in our group were gracious and inclusive, always affirming her for the questions she asked.  She admitted to me that she didn’t “love” the study, but liked what she was learning.  God was laying a foundation in her as she opened her hand and opened His Word.

By the end of our first study, Debbie had seen enough to know she wanted to continue for the rest of the year.  She’d made time for God and He was giving her a desire for more of Him.  As our new study began after Christmas, Debbie’s fists continued to unclench, her hands opened to receive more of Him.  She would arrive at our group unable to speak, overcome with emotion about God’s goodness and all the ways He was revealing Himself to her.  One week with a quavering voice and tears in her eyes she summed it up:  “I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but I never really GOT it until now.  I really GET IT!”  She was glowing with joy as she shared how the Holy Spirit had captured her heart.

Not long after this, Debbie and I met to discuss an after school program we ran together.  We were considering whether or not to continue it next year and had been batting around different ideas.  With conviction in her voice, she offered her opinion:  “I think our time would be put to better use sharing what we’ve learned about the Bible with other women in our community.  There are so many people who need God.  I can think of 10 women right now who I’d invite to an in-home Bible Study, I’d even host it at my house.  Can we pray about doing that instead?”

I was humbled and inspired by Debbie’s passion.  Her desire to share with others reveals God’s transforming power in her life.   Rather than looking at what fits into her schedule, she’s responding to what God wants to do in and through her life.

Recently, Debbie participated in an annual golf tournament.  Beforehand, she laughed saying:  “I haven’t even picked up a golf club in a year, but I don’t care. I’m just going to spend time with my mom, that’s the important part.”  When she returned, I reminded her about the golf clinic she almost chose over Bible Study.  She paused, thinking about how the decision to do Bible Study instead has impacted her life this year:  “I probably would have put a lot more pressure on myself to do well in the tournament if I’d been taking the clinic all year.  Instead, I went and had fun and enjoyed the people.  I would have missed so much if I’d said ‘no’ to Bible Study this year.”  That sounds a lot like Lysa’s words in our study:  “We need not fear what our obedience will cause to happen in our lives.  We should only fear what our disobedience will cause us to miss”  (p. 45).

Debbie’s story inspires me; it shows what God can do when we unclench our fists, open our hands and allow God to pour Himself into us.  There are many things we can hold tightly that keep us from growing.  When we focus on our own agendas, try to control our lives, fret over our finances, hold tightly to our time, or cling to past hurts, we prevent ourselves from becoming the people God wants us to be.  We miss out on receiving His blessings and passing them on to others when we’re more concerned with our personal comfort than letting God work through us.  The things we grasp in our hands only weigh us down and hold us back. We’ll never know how He wants to bless us until we trust Him enough to unclench our fists, relinquish our fears and raise open hands to Him in total surrender.