Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Practicing Gratitude

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Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.  –Psalm 100

 Each time I walk into the grocery store lately stacks of canned pumpkin, boxes of stuffing mix and displays of cranberry sauce tell me that Thanksgiving is upon us.  There is no doubt; it’s the season for eating.  Although many people see the focal point of this holiday as a large meal, I love it because it is centered on the attitude of our hearts. The idea of gathering with those we love to pause and be thankful to God for all the He has done is something worth celebrating.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at what the Bible has to say about giving thanks.  Some have convicted me, some have inspired me, and all of them have given me ideas about how to practice the art of thankfulness more consistently in my life.  Maybe you’ll be challenged to try one for yourself to make this year’s Thanksgiving even more meaningful.

God’s Faithfulness Through All Generations

Psalm 100 (written above) reminds us we have many things to thank God for:

1.  He made us.  2.  We are His.  3.  He is good.  4.  His love endures forever.  5.  His faithfulness continues through all generations.

Those are some pretty big concepts that I often take for granted.  The one that strikes me most right now is the last one:  His faithfulness continues through all generations.  I am thankful that I was blessed with parents who taught me to love God and to value His word.  My husband and I are striving to do the same for our kids.  I am thankful that no matter what the future holds, my children can rest assured knowing that God’s faithfulness to them will continue.  In this world of uncertainty where the future doesn’t always look bright, this is something to be thankful for, indeed.

People Who Have Impacted My Life

Recently I was leafing through my Bible looking through all of the letters Paul wrote in the New Testament.  I was struck by how often he opens with giving thanks to God for the people to whom he was writing and with whom he shared a common bond of faith.  They were people he spent time with, prayed with, taught and ministered to in a variety of ways.  A quick count revealed nine books in the New Testament where Paul gives thanks for people.   In case you’re wondering, here are the references:  Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, Ephesians 1:16, Philippians 1:3-6, Colossians 1:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:3, 2 Timothy 1:3, Philemon 4.

My favorite is probably Philippians 1:3-6:  “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Like Paul, there are many people in my life with whom I’ve been blessed to share a “partnership in the gospel.”  There are friends who have enriched my life as they’ve walked with me work through hard situations; friends who have helped me to discover and use my spiritual gifts; friends who have pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone; friends who have helped me to see myself as God sees me… for them I give God thanks.   I might even take it one step further and write a few cards this week to let them know how God has blessed me through them.

Miracles, Both Large and Small

In her book One Thousand Gifts, author Ann VosKamp points out that Jesus often gave thanks to God before performing miracles.   One great example of this is in John 6:11 when Jesus is preparing to feed a crowd of 5000.  He takes the meager offering of five small barley loaves and two fish given to Him by a little boy.  Here is what happens next:  “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.”

So often when I’ve read this in the past, I’ve skipped right past the crucial phrase “gave thanks” and have instead focused on the amazing miracle Jesus performed.  How frequently have I done the same to God in my life?  I wonder when I’ve prayed for a miracle but skipped over the part about thanking God first–or recognizing the ways He’s already working in a situation.

I have a friend whose husband was out of work a few years ago.  In our weekly prayer requests at Bible study, she would often write “I’m thankful for the awesome job that God is preparing for my husband right now.”  Wow, that was humbling for me to read.  She was thanking God for a need He hadn’t met yet and trusting Him for a miracle.   Her example was an encouraging reminder when my own husband was in the midst of a job challenge earlier this year.  I was able to pray with true excitement and thankfulness for how God would work out a seemingly impossible situation (If you haven’t already, you can read more about this story in my blog post entitled:  God Margin:  When God’s 300 is Greater Than the Enemy’s 135,000).

Replacing Angst with Thanks

I like to think of myself as a “recovering worrier.”  I have a tiny problem with feeling anxious about things on a fairly regular basis (that might be an understatement).    It’s probably the reason Philippians 4:6-7 is one of my favorite verses:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

This passage challenges me to take my worries and turn them into prayers.  We can thank God for hearing our prayers and already having the answer figured out– even when we don’t know what it is.   The verse doesn’t say God will answer our prayers right away and do exactly what we want.  However, it does say that when we lay our anxious thoughts before Him, a peace that defies understanding will rest upon us.  It doesn’t guarantee that whatever is making us anxious will be resolved, but it does say thanking God gives us a peace that guards our hearts.   The act of thanking God changes our perspectives and eliminates the need for worry.

Being Thankful in All Circumstances

A few years ago my small group did a verse exchange for Christmas.  People wrote a favorite verse on a card and then we drew them out of a basket.

The verse I drew was 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.  Since that time, the verse has been a favorite in my life and one I’ve given to others often.  It is simple in theory, but challenging to put into practice daily: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Sometimes I can thank God for good situations and even hard situations, but I forget to thank Him for some of the more mundane things in my life that are easy to take for granted.  Sometimes the stuff of motherhood seems like a chore.  Laundry seems to reproduce at lightning speed.  Dishes always seem IMG_6265to be in the sink.  My kids regularly need help with school assignments or rides to sports practices and other activities.  Errands always need to be run.  Each of these seemingly mundane tasks can suck the life out of me if I have the wrong perspective.  However, when I take time to be thankful, something changes in me.  Those mountains of laundry mean that I have the blessing of a family.  They show that we have an abundance of clothing to wear and the luxury of a washer and drier to do the worst parts of the job.  Those dishes in the sink remind me to be thankful that we eat three meals a day and can have food whenever our stomachs grumble even slightly.  Helping my kids with schoolwork means they are being educated and will have an abundance of opportunities available to them as a result.  The fact that I can help them shows that I’ve been blessed with a sound mind and a good education as well.  With a thankful heart the mundane things that I “have to do” become the blessings that I “get to do.”  A simple shift in perspective is all it takes.

Practicing Thankfulness

No doubt, you’ll spend some time this week shopping at a variety of stores and preparing special food to celebrate Thanksgiving.  This year, try working in some time to practice thankfulness by looking at a few of the topics I’ve touched on above and taking time to name the things for which you’re thankful.  It will bless you with a more meaningful celebration. It will also leave you filled up in a way that feels considerably better than the usual post-Thanksgiving meal belly bloat.  Spread the gratitude by sharing some of your thoughts with others around the table or leave a comment below.

For more inspiration on being thankful, click on the link below to hear the song  “All I Can Do (Thank You)” by the band MIKESCHAIR.

 

 

 

 

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The Spiritual Nutrients in the Bread of Life

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I grew up in a household that placed a high value on knowing and studying the Bible.  It wasn’t so much in what my parents said as in what they did to show us their priorities.  Throughout my childhood I watched my parents devote themselves to participating in weekly Bible studies that required a fair amount of homework.  I can remember coming home from school to find my mom at the kitchen table with her papers spread all over as she pored over her enormous “parallel” Bible (four translations in one book).  Any time I stayed home sick, I couldn’t watch TV until my mom had finished listening to her favorite Bible teachers on the radio.  This was a daily activity for her as she worked in the kitchen or did housework while all of us kids were at school.  It seemed boring to me at the time, but her actions influenced me more than I realized.

Looking back, I see my parents treated studying the Bible as a priority in their schedules.  It wasn’t drudgery or something they did because the “had” to do it.  And it wasn’t a luxury that they did only when they’d finished all of the other “important” tasks that demanded their time.  It was just woven into the fabric of their schedules.

When my oldest son was born, one of my goals for my first year at home with him was to find a Bible study.  Following my parents’ example, I wanted to immerse myself in God’s word with more discipline and consistency than I had before.   It has been fourteen years since I set out to get serious about studying the Bible.  I’ve been blessed to see the benefits of pursuing that goal.  The more I’ve studied it, the more I’ve realized what a rich and layered book it is.  And the more I’ve studied, the more I’ve changed, grown and gained wisdom as God has revealed Himself to me through the pages of His holy word.

Once I started seeing positive results, I was motivated to keep pushing myself further.  Old things that used to seem appealing suddenly weren’t as enticing anymore. Each new truth I discovered opened my eyes to God’s character, goodness and grace, causing me to love Him more and to be grateful for all He’d done for me.  His word gave me hope and strength in hard times and confidence to be stretched in new ways.  Studying with others who had similar goals also helped me on the road to growing deeper.

Making time to study the Bible has not always been easy.  Over the years I’ve crossed paths with many people like me who have faced challenges in their quest to know and live God’s word.  Here are three of the most prevalent issues students of the Bible face:

Viewing Studying the Bible as Drudgery

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the mindset of thinking studying scripture is something we “should” do because it’s good for us.  Kind of like eating your vegetables when you’re a kid.  Yet, in 2 Timothy, Paul says: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)  If we dabble in Bible study and view it as drudgery, this makes it difficult to handle the word of truth correctly.  If we’re doing it just to check it off our “to do” lists, chances are it’s not really impacting our lives much.

The writer of Hebrews describes it this way:  “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.  But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good from evil”  (Hebrews 5:12-14).

Viewing Studying the Bible as a Luxury

Kay Arthur comments in the Session 1 video of Faithful, Abundant, True:  Three Lives Going Deeper Still that “we’re so entangled with the affairs of this life that we’re not studying the Word of God as we ought to.”   Sometimes we view time studying the Bible as a luxury or a “bonus” that we can indulge once we’ve gotten all of our “important” tasks finished.  When I get up in the morning I’m often tempted to check my phone or computer before I open my Bible.  However, when I do this I usually get sucked into the day’s events and neglect that quiet time in God’s word I so desperately need.  “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”  (Matthew 4:4) Just like we need food every day, we need God’s word every day.  It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

Losing Focus with Priorities

Sometimes I joke that the problem with America is that we have too many choices.  There are so many things vying for our time and attention that seem good, important or just plain fun. We fill our schedules full and then complain that we “don’t have time” for studying the Bible.  We’re so busy doing that we’ve forgotten how to be.  Many Christians find disciplined study of the Bible infringes on their schedules in light of all their other obligations.  When they do find themselves with “down time,” they are too exhausted for the serious study that leads to maturity.

Yet, in Hebrews 2:1, we see an important reminder: “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”  Paying careful attention requires time, effort and commitment.  Reading, studying and knowing the Bible needs to be woven into the fabric of our daily lives, not something we do haphazardly when we have a few extra minutes.  When we let other priorities take precedence over studying God’s word, we don’t grow and mature as we’re meant to and we forego the vital spiritual nutrients we need to survive.

Ideas for Realigning Our Focus

Most of us have probably found ourselves in one or all of the categories above at different points in our lives.   Read below to diagnose your current challenge and to get some practical ideas for getting back on track.

Drudgery:  It may feel like drudgery when we’re more motivated by outward influences.  If you find yourself feeling “guilty” for not studying the Bible more, it might have more to do with worrying what others think than really wanting to know God’s word.  Perhaps you are someone who just plain doesn’t like reading, studying and doing homework.  If either of these describes you, pray and ask God to increase your desire for His word and to help you see and feel why studying it is beneficial.

Luxury:  If your problem is viewing studying the Bible as a luxury, try fasting from food for a day. (I’m serious). Every time your stomach rumbles, you’ll be reminded that food is a necessity, not a luxury, just like God’s word.

Prioritizing Your Time:  If you struggle with making time in God’s word a priority, try evaluating your schedule.   Take an honest look at how you spent your time in the last week.  Are there moments that you could have used more wisely?   In my life, screens can often be major time-suckers- whether it is checking e-mail, scanning Facebook, researching something online, relaxing in front of the TV or checking my phone.  If you can relate, try to put time studying the Bible before these activities instead of saving it for after.  Or, try turning off screens half an hour earlier so you can get up in the morning and start your day in God’s word.

Whatever might be keeping you from delving into the Bible more deeply, I encourage you to seek God’s help and ask a trusted friend to keep you accountable.

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  All of us who are mature should take such a view of things”  (Philippians 3:13b-15a).

What tips do you have for encouraging others to be disciplined in their study of God’s Word?  Take a moment to comment and let us know.


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Finding Your Twenty Seconds of Courage

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Throughout the story of Gideon we see moments of incredible bravery when Gideon had to step out in faith to trust God.  Gideon’s weakness became a conduit to reveal God’s incredible strength.  In each pivotal moment of Gideon’s story, he had to take the first step in deciding whether he would follow God’s plan or cower in his own weakness.  I like to think about those crucial twenty seconds of courage in each terrifying situation he faced:  tearing down his father’s altar to Ba’al, accepting military leadership despite his lack of experience, sending home 31,700 soldiers despite the 135,000 Midianites he was called to attack, and entering battle with only 300 men armed with nothing more than clay jars, torches and trumpets.

What we need to realize is that we have access to that same power Gideon had.  We have opportunities every day to entrust our weaknesses to God and to watch how He gives us strength to accomplish His purposes.

This whole idea of “Twenty Seconds of Courage” was inspired in me by watching the movie We Bought a Zoo.  Check out the clip here:

Matt Damon’s character says these inspiring words:  “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.  Just literally, twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery and I promise you, something great will come of it.” When we trust God to give us 20 seconds of courage to obey Him, it can transform our lives for good and impact others in powerful ways.

Gideon was not the only one who stepped out in faith relying on God’s strength in the midst of his weakness.  Let’s look at a few other people in the Bible who did this to see if we can discover how they found the courage to step out in faith when the odds were against them.

Joshua:

One of my favorite stories takes place in Joshua, Chapter 3.  Joshua has just become the new leader of the Children of Israel after Moses’ death.  Imagine how daunting it must have been to come after Moses, the man who spoke directly to God and led the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land.  That is probably why God tells Joshua three times in Joshua 1 “Be strong and courageous.”

His task in Joshua 3 is to lead roughly two million Jews across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  The biggest problem is that this is during flood stage and the swollen river was probably several hundred yards across.  God instructs Joshua to have the priests carry the Ark of the Covenant into the river and to trust that He will hold back the waters.  Imagine the twenty seconds of courage it must’ve taken Joshua to tell the priests the plan!  Amazingly, the priests agree to the plan and God parts the waters to allow all of the people to walk on dry ground and pass safely into the Promised Land.

I’d guess that Joshua’s courage came from his past experiences with Yahweh.  He’d seen God part the Red Sea in Exodus 14, he’d seen him provide manna for the people throughout their forty years wandering in the desert (see Exodus 16 for the first occurrence), and he’d won a battle against the Amalekites against amazing odds.  This passage describing that battle is too good not to share:

“So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.  Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.’”

God wanted to make sure Joshua remembered this amazing victory so that he would have courage to lead in the future.

The bottom line?  Joshua found his twenty seconds of courage through remembering God’s faithfulness in the past.

Jehoshaphat:

The story of Judah’s King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20 might be one of my favorites of all time.  In earlier chapters, we learn that Jehoshaphat was a king who honored God by removing the high places and Asherah poles from Judah.  He also valued God’s word and sent officials throughout Judah to teach the Book of the Law to the people.

In chapter 20, Jehoshaphat learns that a vast army is marching to attack Judah.  I love his response in verses 3-4:

“Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek him.”

Jehoshaphat’s impulse wasn’t to gather his military advisors, count his troops or inventory the weapons in Judah’s arsenal.  His impulse was to seek God.  He gathers his people together to pray and fast.  In his public prayer before all the people, he doesn’t’ start by pleading with God to save Judah, instead, he praises God’s power. Next, he proclaims God’s past deeds.  He finally gets around to presenting God with his problem and then shows ultimate humility by admitting his position of powerlessness.  In verse 12 he says:

“We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

The next day God sends Jehoshaphat to meet his enemies.  The prophet who shares God’s plan reassures Jehoshaphat by saying in 20:17:

“You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.”

In 20:21 Jeshoshaphat follows God plan and marches out to battle after appointing men to go out at the head of the army singing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.”

Much like the story of Gideon, God causes the enemies to turn on one another and by the time Jehoshaphat and his army arrive the enemies have all destroyed one another.  All that is left for Jehoshaphat and his men to do is collect the plunder.

The bottom line?  Jehoshaphat found his twenty seconds of courage through praising God.

Peter:

The story of Peter walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33 is one of my favorites from the New Testament.  I love the fact that he was the only disciple with enough courage to ask Jesus to enable him to walk on water when he saw Jesus walking on the waves towards the boat.  Even though Peter does falter for a moment when he lets the wind and the waves take his eyes off Jesus, he remembers where to turn for help in verse 30:

“But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

Much like Jehoshaphat, he knew that in his powerlessness, God was the only one who could save him.  Just how did Peter become so trusting of Jesus that he was willing to step out of the boat into the storm tossed waters?  I turned to the beginning of the book of Matthew to see what events took place prior to this one.  It’s quite an impressive list.  Here are a few of the things that happened earlier in the story:

-He saw Jesus heal the sick (Matt 4)

-He heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7)

-He saw Jesus calm a storm  (Matt 8)

-He saw Jesus heal two demon-possessed men  (Matt 8)

-He saw Jesus heal a paralytic (Matt 9)

-He saw Jesus raise a girl from death (Matt 9)

-He was sent out to preach, heal, raise dead, cleans lepers and drive out demons (Matt 10)

-He saw Jesus feed a crowd 5000 people using 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish (Matt 14)

Peter had already witnessed Jesus doing amazing things.  He had developed a relationship of love and trust and knew that through Jesus he could do seemingly impossible things.  The bottom line?  Peter’s twenty seconds of courage came through trusting Jesus.

There are several common threads that we can see between the characters in all three stories.

1.  All three knew and valued God’s Word

2.  All three shared God’s truth with others

3.  All three knew God was capable of doing more than they could do on their own

4.  All three knew their own weaknesses

5.  All three impacted others using God’s strength

6.  All three had personal and intimate relationships with God

7.  All three led courageously in seemingly impossible situations

Here is the best part:  None of the things on this list are specific to a particular person, culture or time period.  All of them can be true of us today as much as they were for Joshua, Jehoshaphat and Peter.

As we wrap up our study of Gideon, what will be different in your life going forward?  What areas do you need to work on so that you’ll be ready when God calls you to step out to give Him 20 seconds of courage?

Our moments of courage can be large or small, but each one matters to God.   Do you sense God nudging you in some way that may seem frightening?

-Maybe He’s calling you to pick up the phone and mend a broken relationship

-Maybe He’s prompting you to speak an encouraging word to someone who is outside of your comfort zone

-Maybe He’s calling you to invite a friend or neighbor to church or Bible study

-Maybe He’s nudging you to open your home to someone in need

-Maybe He’s telling you to say “no” to a few commitments that will enable you to spend more time with Him or studying His word

-Maybe He’s prompting you to spend more time pouring into others or less time with people who are dragging you down

-Maybe He’s calling you to go on that Missions trip you’ve been talking about for years

-Maybe He’s inviting you to trust Him with your finances and tithe or give sacrificially

-Maybe He’s nudging you to make that appointment with a Christian counselor that you’ve been putting off

-Maybe He’s telling you to use that Spiritual Gift you know you have but have been afraid to use

The list could go on.  The point is, any act of bravery requires that first twenty seconds of courage to get started.  Are you up for it?  When you look back at the story of your life, what things do you see God has given you to draw on for courage?  Are you ready to give Him your weakness and watch Him turn it into His strength?  Post a comment and let us know!