Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Press On

IMG_1078It’s okay to stop and enjoy the view, but don’t linger too long on the trail without moving forward.

My muscles burned as I hiked up the steep incline toward the Las Trampas ridgeline. Orange California Poppies and yellow wildflowers dotted the grass that covered the rolling hills surrounding me. Turning to admire the view of the valley below, I put my hands on my hips and breathed deeply. The friends walking beside me caught their breath and marveled at the elevation we’d gained in such a short period of time.

The women I hiked with had spent the last seven months together delving into the Bible weekly in a group called “FaithWalk.” We’d chosen the name because we were all on a spiritual journey moving ever closer to God. Although we were at different places in our walks with Him, all of us had a desire to move forward.

As our months of formal study came to an end, we decided to take our “FaithWalk” out of the living room and onto the hiking trail. Exerting some energy, getting to higher ground and stopping to take in the view gave us a whole new perspective on life. This was true for us physically on the trail as much as it was spiritually when we’d studied Scripture together.

What we experienced is true of anyone who has been involved in a Bible study. In the past year we’ve made significant spiritual strides, whether it was in FaithWalk, Focused Living or somewhere else. Studying the truth revealed in God’s Word has deepened our wisdom and encouraged our faith.   Significant connections have been made with others and we’ve grown in our prayer lives. We’ve traveled to higher ground and have discovered a new perspective.

Now we are moving into that “limbo” time of year when formal Bible studies end and summer classes are still a long way from starting.   After gathering with others to study the Bible consistently, we’re now left to our own initiative to keep growing spiritually. It’s a little like hiking to the top of the ridge and then having our companions scatter in different directions. If it’s our first time up the trail, it can be especially disconcerting because we’re not sure where to turn next.

For many of us, this becomes a season when we slack off in pursuing God. Our faith that burned so brightly cools to flickering embers. Maybe we stop reading our Bibles because we don’t have a study to direct us or we forgo gathering with fellow believers because our weekly meetings have ended. Perhaps we even cease praying as apathy creeps in slowly.

This doesn’t have to be our reality, however. God never clocks out; He never has an end of the year brunch and then retreats from us until the fall. He doesn’t put His Word on a shelf next to the other books He’s studied.   Likewise, we can continue pursuing Him without being tied to the parameters of a formal Bible study. Instead of getting lulled into complacency, we can persevere by keeping our focus on Jesus.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2a)

Instead of seeing the end of a formal Bible study as a time of spiritual slackening, we can view it as a time to draw nearer to God. We can dig deeper into the things that we didn’t have time to pursue during the year. It’s a chance to spend unstructured time getting to know Him personally. If you need some help figuring out how to do this, I’ve included few ideas below. Hopefully they’ll help keep you engaged with Jesus and His Word instead of wandering in the wilderness:

-If you were involved in a book study this year, chances are there was at least a lesson or two that you didn’t fully complete. Go back, re-read and finish the lessons and look at how they fit into the context of the whole study.   Then do the next suggestion below.

-If you finished all your studies, go back through them and make lists highlighting the things you learned. Get a journal and make it the place where you record specific quotes, words of wisdom and verses that made an impact on you. Continue to add to it with each new study you do.

-Choose a Christian book or personal Bible study to go through daily. Better yet, invite a friend or a small group of people to join you. Find a time to meet together weekly to discuss it. This is a great way to stay accountable. Here are few places to shop for books:

http://www.p31bookstore.com

http://www.lifeway.com/n/Books-&-Magazines

www.christianbook.com

http://www.newhopepublishers.com

CPC’s Community Book Shoppe (for those who are local)

CPC Library (for those who are local)

-Ask someone to be your prayer partner. Share requests and pray that both of you can stay engaged in God’s Word. Meet together, e-mail, text or talk on the phone regularly to stay connected.

-Continue to check in with this Life in Focus blog for spiritual encouragement. I’ll be posting throughout the summer. If you don’t follow the blog yet, click on the “follow” icon on the right side of the screen so you’ll be notified each time I post something new.

-Subscribe to an online study or devotional. Check out these options:

http://proverbs31.org/devotions/devo/

http://www.faithgateway.com/topics/devotionals/

-Subscribe to a Christian magazine.   Check out these options:

“Homelife” Magazine (Lifeway)

“Today’s Christian Woman” Magazine

-Add some variety to your time with God by listening to Christian music, writing prayers in a journal or taking prayer walks outside regularly. Branch out and be creative!

Whatever you choose will help you continue growing in your walk with Jesus. It’s okay to stop and enjoy the view, but don’t linger too long on the trail without moving forward.

“But one thing I do: 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.” (Philippians 3:13b-14)

What are your plans to stay connected with God and His Word once Bible study ends? How will “pressing on’ look in your daily life? Do you have books, studies or ideas to suggest? Leave a comment to inspire others!

For further inspiration, click on the link below to hear the song “Press On” by Building 429,featuring Blanca Callahan.

 

 

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God + Me = A Majority

 

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The music from my car’s radio turned to static as I wound my way through the Santa Cruz Mountains on Highway 17. I clicked the knob off and breathed a prayer: God, thanks for being with me wherever I go. I’ve prayed a lot about this trip and you know what I need, so I’m not going to keep saying it. Please help me to be silent now and just feel your presence.

Half an hour later I was pulling into a parking space at the conference center. My heart thudded in my chest as I walked past a cheerful sign saying “Welcome Mount Hermon Christian Writers.” I chastised myself silently: Yesterday you spoke to a room full of women and assured them that “God + Me = A Majority.” Do you believe that’s true in your own life today?

It was my first time to the conference and I’d felt some dread in the months leading up to it.   I was nervous about spending four nights away from my family with several hundred writers, literary agents, editors and publishers. Knowing I was a rookie and that I didn’t know a soul attending didn’t help. To say it was a step out of my comfort zone would be an understatement.

I found reassurance reminding myself that I wasn’t alone and never would be. I tried to let the title of my talk travel from my head to my heart: “God + Me = A Majority.” I repeated the line several times to grasp its truth. God came up the mountain with me. He would also meet me there and connect me to others who knew Him. I could trust Him because His promises were true.

I thought about all of the people I’d referenced in my talk the day before. Throughout the Bible God promised many people He would be with them: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Joseph, Jeremiah and Gideon—to name a few. In Hebrews we find this promise for all who follow Jesus: “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5b)

The only reason we can claim this promise is that Jesus made it possible for us. His death on the cross allows us to have direct and permanent access to God. As we celebrate Holy Week, it seems only fitting to consider the price Jesus paid so that we will never be forsaken by God.

While He walked the earth, Jesus took great comfort in knowing His Father was with Him. On the night before He was crucified, He told His disciples in the garden: “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” (John 16:32) He knew His closest friends would desert Him in His hour of greatest need, yet He took comfort knowing His Father was there with Him.

A day later, Jesus had been arrested, beaten and nailed to a cross.   His pain was not only physical, but also spiritual and emotional. This was the only time in His earthly life He could not find comfort in His Father’s presence. As He suffered in agony, He cried out the words of David from Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary explains: “The Father withdrew from communion with the Son. No longer did he evidence his love toward the son. Instead Christ had become the object of the Father’s displeasure, for he was the sinner’s substitute. Christ became ‘sin for us’ and a holy God cannot look with favor upon sin.” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1990 edition, p. 1024)

Jesus took the punishment that we deserved so that we never have to experience being forsaken by God. The very thing that comforts us most as Christians was denied to Him.

Thinking about this makes my heart swell with gratitude. His sacrifice on the cross not only enables us to have eternal life, it also allows us to have the comfort of knowing He walks with us daily.

Knowing this truth should make us passionate about sharing it with others. How could we keep it to ourselves when there is a world desperately in need of hope?  One of the best ways we can show Jesus gratitude for His work on the cross is by being lights for Him.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

There are so many different ways we can do this with our actions, attitudes and words. Our neighborhoods, schools and secular workplaces provide abundant opportunities to shine for Jesus.  When we help an underserved population locally or overseas, we are bringing light to darkness. Sometimes it can be as simple as showing love and grace when we’re tempted to dish out judgment and criticism. The options are limitless. God gives us the gifts we need and equips us to bring light to the darkness. Our job is to step out obediently to use what He’s given us. This might sound a little intimidating, but we can rest assured that He will be with us and that “God + Me = A Majority.”

Click on the link below to be inspired by Christy Nockels’ song “Life Light Up.”

If you missed my talk at Focused Living, you can access it through my Facebook page:  Marybeth Mc Cullum – Author (due to privacy settings I am unable to post it here)

(The title “God + Me = A Majority” was borrowed from an episode of Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey).

 

 

 


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Being a Person of Integrity

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I still remember the scene like it was yesterday, even though it happened quite a while ago. It was my first year working in a large public high school and I was off to a rough start as the new Leadership teacher. On this particular day, I stood in the classroom watching out the window as a group of students crowded boisterously around a soda machine just outside. The bell rang and as my Student Government kids began trickling in, most of them were grinning and holding frosty cans of soda. One turned to me and explained with glee, “That soda machine outside is broken and the door is open. Everyone’s getting free sodas!”

I turned to the student and said simply, “Hand me that can and go collect them from everyone else.” My tone of voice told him not to question me. As the students began to protest the confiscation, I spoke up, “Can someone tell me who owns the soda machine?”

I met eyes with a few of the kids and they looked away. One spoke up hesitantly, “Uh, I guess the school does.”

I continued, “That’s right. And do you remember seeing a line item on our Student Government Budget that says ‘Soda Commissions?’ Can someone tell me who gets that money?”

Another student raised her hand sheepishly, “Um, our school athletics programs and the Student Government get the money.”

I nodded and continued, “So, when you’re taking those sodas out of the machine, are they free, or are you stealing them?”

Now, I had everyone looking wide-eyed at me. One boy tried to defend their actions. “Well, when you put it that way, I guess we’re stealing them from ourselves and the other students. But the machine was open, so it’s not our fault if people are taking them.”

Barely able to contain my anger, I responded with a measured tone of voice, “You are student leaders and if you see something like that happening, it is your responsibility to lead by example. Rather than joining in what was happening, one of you should have stood by the machine and someone else should have gotten an adult to help. You set the tone at this school and I expect you to act with integrity.”

Another hand shot up, “Uh, Mrs. McCullum, I don’t even know what that word means and I’m pretty sure no one else does either.”

I answered simply, “Integrity is doing the right thing whether anyone is watching or not. It is being a person with a consistent character who chooses to do what is right because it is right and for no other reason.” I paused and thought for a moment before continuing, “I think we’re going to spend some time learning about what a true leader is, even if it means we plan a few less activities this year.”

Since that eye-opening day, I’ve realized that the quality of integrity is rarely discussed and poorly understood by our culture. So, when I saw Kelly Minter touch on it in Week 6, Day 3 of our study, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Whether we’re discussing teenagers in the twenty first century or Levites in 444 BC, integrity is a crucial characteristic that is in short supply in our world. Nehemiah talks about it in two different instances in his story. The first is when he chooses leaders for the city after the wall is built:

“I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most people do.” -Nehemiah 7:2

The second time is when he returns to Jerusalem later and makes some final reforms after the people stray from the agreement they made to care for the temple and the Levites. Nehemiah lists his choice of leaders and explains his decision:

“I put Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and a Levite named Pedaiah in charge of the storerooms and made Hanan son of Zakkur, the son of Mattaniah, their assistant, because they were considered trustworthy. They were made responsible for distributing the supplies to their fellow Levites.” -Nehemiah 13:13

Minter explains: “The world doesn’t need more wealth, strength, power, or skill as much as it desperately needs trustworthy people. My heart is never more at rest, my soul never more at peace than when I am in the presence of a person of integrity. I find relational serenity in never having to second-guess what the person really meant, not having to dodge gossip or duck drama. When I have the assurance that a person’s word is true, motives pure, and intents just, I have found a rare treasure indeed…the names we just read through [in Nehemiah 13:13] don’t carry a lot of meaning, but they represent faithful and loyal people Nehemiah could count on.   Our world could be no more in need of such trustworthy souls today.” (Nehemiah, A Heart Can Break pp. 153-4)

Many people have a “public self” and a “private self.” The “public self” shows well and says the right things.   The “private self”, however, is where the truth resides.   It is where authentic thoughts, feelings and attitudes reveal themselves. Usually, it is also where some of the less appealing aspects of our characters exist: the secret struggles with sin, hidden addictions, quiet judgments of others, critical thoughts, self-pity, entitlement, impatience. We may not like to admit it, but we all have those things inside us to varying degrees.

God values integrity and if we are serious about wanting to follow Him, then we need to start removing the façade of our “public selves” and relinquishing our “private selves” for Him to do a little house cleaning. We need to show consistency of character, even when God is the only one who notices.

Here are a few questions to consider as you evaluate where you need to let God refine your character and build a firm foundation of integrity in you:

-Do I say what I mean?

-Do I mean what I say?

-Do I have ulterior motives when I want to get involved in an activity, with a group or with a person?

-Do I treat things people tell me in confidence as sacred secrets not to be shared?

-Do I adapt how I am around certain people in order to fit in?

-Do I roll my eyes or make derogatory comments about people after interacting with them?

-Do I talk about people behind their backs?

-Does my language change based on who I’m with?

-Do I say “yes” to things I really don’t want to do?

-Do I participate in activities or behaviors that I know aren’t pleasing to God?

-Do I ever drop hints, make subtle comments or make digs to let my opinion be known instead of just saying it clearly?

-Am I beyond reproach in how I handle my finances?

-Do I take advantage of people and situations for personal or financial gain?

-Do I justify “white lies” as okay in certain circumstances?

-Am I teaching my children or grandchildren the importance of integrity and demonstrating it in my own actions?

-Do I tell “half truths” or omit certain pieces of information to cover up a wrongdoing or to get something I want?

-Do I turn a blind eye to things I know are wrong happening within my sphere of influence?

-Do I cover up my mistakes or admit them?

-Do I compromise what is right to save myself money, time or inconvenience?

-Do I intentionally conceal things from my spouse?

-Would my behavior, thoughts and attitudes be pleasing to Jesus?

-Do I keep my word?

-Do I follow through on commitments?

-Do I base my decisions on what others are doing or on what is the right thing to do?

-Does what I say I believe match with how I live my life daily?

-Do I speak up when an error is made in my favor?

-Do I take action to right a wrong even if it is inconvenient or costly to me in some way?

-Do people consider me authentic and sincere?

If any of these questions caught your attention, take time to stop, pray and ask God to reveal where your life needs a fresh infusion of integrity. You don’t have to do this on your own strength.  He will supply what you need when you humbly admit your need to Him.  Sometimes this means retraining ourselves to respond differently to a situation instead of letting our “default mode” take over.  Other times it involves breaking unhealthy habits, patterns or cycles.  Trust God to help you take the steps needed to make the situation right, no matter how difficult it is.

Integrity Matters to God

Integrity should matter to us because it matters to God. Here are a few of the many verses that discuss it:

“I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.” -1 Chronicles 29:17

“May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you.” –Psalm 25:21

“Because of my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence forever.” –Psalm 41:12

“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” –Proverbs 10:9

“Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner.” –Proverbs 13:6

Integrity Affects Our Impact on Others

Integrity also matters to others. If we claim to be Christians but lack integrity, our witness is ruined. Our actions often speak so loudly that people can’t hear the words we say.

In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” –Titus 2:7-8

Let God Supply Your Integrity

If you are feeling convicted or overwhelmed, keep in mind that even Paul had to rely on God’s grace to supply the integrity he needed to minister effectively:

“Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.” -2 Corinthians 1:12

I’ll borrow Kelly Minter’s words as my closing prayer in this quest for integrity:

“May we seek to be people that God and others can trust, people whose deeds do not change whether we are in the dark or the light, whether we’ve been entrusted with little or much.” (p. 154)

Click on the link below to hear Francesca Battistelli’s song “It’s Your Life.” Think about how the words apply to being a person of integrity.