Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Bitter or Better

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The people were parched and weary. After three days of walking in the Wilderness of Shur, they still hadn’t found water. Finally discovering a small spring, they stooped eagerly to scoop the refreshing liquid into their dehydrated bodies, not caring if it ran down their beards or soaked their dirty robes. But, there was a problem: “they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.” (Exodus 15:23b-25a, NKJV)

The Israelites’ first reflex always seemed to be negative, despite the miracles they witnessed and God’s constant provision for them.  Any time they experienced a difficulty they reacted with grumbling. The water they couldn’t drink at Marah was bitter, just like their attitudes.

Conversely, we see God demonstrating His patience with them each time Moses cried out with humility asking for help. God took their bitter water and made it sweet. There is no mention of the Israelites showing gratitude to God for performing this miracle.

This story illustrates a truth we can apply to our own lives: living through seasons of hardship can make us bitter people or better people. The choice is ours, but the decision affects all the people in our lives. Each stop on a journey through the wilderness presents a new opportunity to learn, grow and trust God, if we are willing. Priscilla Shirer explains, “This is what God does when we cry out to Him, displaying our vulnerability during seasons of distress and giving Him our need for emotional healing in the face of disappointment. He is the One who can turn the bitter into the sweet.” (One in a Million, p. 65)

I can think of no better example of God making bitter things sweet than Corrie Ten Boom’s classic tale The Hiding Place. It takes place during World War II and tells the story of two unmarried Dutch sisters in their mid-fifties who are sent to Nazi concentration camps after being caught hiding Jews. There are times when I’ve been reading the story aloud to my son that I’ve paused to blink back tears and swallow the lump in my throat. I’m in awe of the example set by Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom.

At one point near the end of the book, the sisters are moved to Ravensbruck, a notorious women’s extermination camp in Germany. As they are ushered into their quarters in Barracks 28, they discover a cavernous room housing four times as many women as it was designed to hold. Corrie describes the scene: “Our noses told us, first, that the place was filthy: somewhere plumbing had backed up, the bedding was soiled and rancid. Then as our eyes adjusted to the gloom we saw that there were no individual beds at all, but great square piers stacked three high, and wedged side by side, and end to end with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through.” (The Hiding Place p. 208)

As the sisters attempt to settle into their new living situation, Corrie laments to her sister, “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?” It takes Corrie a moment to realize Betsie’s answer is a prayer: “Show us. Show us how.” (p. 208) Within moments Betsie remembers a familiar passage of Scripture and realizes it is the answer to her prayer:  “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-18 NKJV)

The two sisters marvel at how fitting the passage from First Thessalonians is for their situation and feel it is God’s Word meant especially for them. Rather than being bitter about their horrific circumstances, they begin to thank God, naming specific things for which they can be grateful. First they thank Him that their captors have not separated them and that they are able to endure their trials together. Next, they thank Him for the tiny New Testament they were able to smuggle into the camp. They also thank Him for their cramped living quarters, which will give them ample opportunities to share the hope of His Word with their bunkmates. However, when Betsie suggests they even thank God for the fleas in the bunks, Corrie says “There’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” (p. 210).

Their first night in the barracks, the two sisters listen in distress as “among exhausted, ill-fed people, quarrels [erupt] constantly.” Betsie clasps Corrie’s hand and prays: “Lord Jesus, send Your peace into this room. There has been too little praying here. The very walls know it. But where You come Lord, the spirit of strife cannot exist…” (p. 211).

Over the subsequent weeks the sisters begin sharing the hope of God’s love with anyone who wants to listen.  They hold nightly worship services where women gather around their bunk eagerly awaiting the next portion of the New Testament they’ll read aloud. The atmosphere in the barracks slowly changes as Betsie’s prayer is answered and the women replace their quarreling with love and support.

The two sisters are cautious about advertising their nightly “church service,” fearing they’ll be found out by their Nazi captors. However, they grow bolder as the days pass and they realize the bunkroom never seems to be patrolled. They are mystified but grateful for their freedom in the barracks.

One day, Betsie discovers the reason none of the Nazi guards will enter their quarters: it’s because of the fleas. Corrie says “My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.” (p. 220) Realizing that God deserves thanks even for the fleas leaves Corrie in awe of His attentiveness to every detail.

The Ten Boom sisters could waste their time lamenting their circumstances and being angry with God for allowing them to be arrested for their good works. Yet, they choose to thank Him in the midst of their trials. Rather than turning inward to fixate on self-pity or simple survival, they choose to participate in expandiing God’s kingdom in a place that would rival hell itself.   They care for the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of their fellow prisoners. They even pray for their ruthlessly cruel guards.

It’s humbling and inspiring to read about these two women. What an incredible impact they had because they chose to become better people instead of bitter ones in the midst of their trials.

Between the example of the Israelites and the Ten Booms, it seems clear that grumbling and negativity lead to an attitude of bitterness that infects others. Conversely, gratefulness and a positive perspective are blessings to others and expand our opportunities to have a positive impact on them. The Apostle Paul describes this in his letter to the Philippians:

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:14-16, NIV)

In spite of their horrific wilderness experience, Betsie and Corrie Ten Boom shined like stars in their generation as they held firmly to the word of life. I’d like to do the same in my generation, how about you?

Laura Story’s Song “Make Something Beautiful” captures the essence of letting God use our hardships to honor Him and bless others. Click on the link below to enjoy the song.

Shirer, Priscilla; One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press; 2009, 2014.

Ten Boom, Corrie (with Elizabeth and John Sherrill); The Hiding Place; Chosen Books; 1971, 1984, 2006.

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Wandering in the Wilderness Doesn’t Mean You’re Lost

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The tears were unpredictable and disconcerting. I’d be sitting at the breakfast table with my kids or lying in bed trying to fall asleep and suddenly I’d find myself sobbing uncontrollably. It had been a hard year and although I’d been clinging to the Psalms and praying constantly, the emotional heaviness wouldn’t lift. I was wandering in a wilderness of pain and confusion, much like Priscilla Shirer describes in One in a Million. In her study, she says God “often chooses a wilderness journey for us to give us an opportunity to experience Him in a way we might miss in a place of ease and convenience…we have to decide if we will follow where He is leading and trust that He knows what he is doing” (p. 34-35).

For me, that wilderness time came unexpectedly. Over the span of a few months, three significant relationships in my life changed course without warning, leaving me wondering what I’d done wrong.   Each person had withdrawn from me for different reasons. My safe and comfortable world suddenly felt cold and lonely. Worse still, one of the relationships was within my circle of friends at church. So I struggled silently, not wanting to gossip or call attention to the ways our close community was being quietly torn apart. Attending Sunday worship, Bible study and small group became triggers for anxiety and discouragement. I often left feeling worse than when I arrived.

I’d been living in this wilderness for eight months when the tears started flowing inexplicably. Without warning, a flood of emotion would overwhelm me, with no clear explanation for what had caused it. Despite my efforts to lean into God, to pray and find comfort in His Word, the deep sadness seemed to be pulling me under little by little. It was a difficult time in my life, but few people knew about it. I was a master at putting up a façade and appearing to have everything under control.

Finally, when my angst seemed to consume every moment of our time at home, my husband said the dreaded words I needed to hear. “I’m here for you and I want to help you, but I think it’s time for you to go to counseling too.” After some weak protesting, I admitted he was right. Making the phone call to schedule the first appointment was one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. Maybe that’s why Priscilla Shirer’s words resonate with me so much: “You and I must boldly ask the Lord to let us see Him, even if the light of his presence is best seen against the veil of darkness.” (p.37)

With the help of my godly counselor, I began to peel back the layers of pain. I was able to understand myself and to see how the fractured relationships I’d been grieving were indicators of deeper issues that needed to be confronted. I’d been wandering on my own, trying to find relief, now I had a fellow traveler on my wilderness journey. She had a map and the tools I needed to find emotional healing and health. The things that caused me pain became catalysts for growth.

Although that was a dark time in my life, I look back on it now with gratitude. I learned about my assumptions and how they affected the way I saw myself. My identity was wrapped up in my relationships with people and my desire to be valued by them. That season in the wilderness was refining the parts of me that needed to be changed before God could use my gifts to bless others. I doubt I would be writing this or any other blog if I hadn’t gone through that time or done the hard work to get healthy with the help of my counselor.

Taking that journey through the wilderness enabled me to be more honest with myself. It allowed me to be authentic and to identify with others in their struggles. Instead of trying to hide the parts of me that were messy and complicated, I started using them to connect with others and to help them on their own journeys. My wilderness experience made it possible for me to do what Scripture describes:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV)

My desert wandering led me to become healthier emotionally, spiritually and relationally.  I was never lost because God was right beside me the whole time, gently guiding and teaching me through my struggles.

Similarly, God never left the Israelites in their wanderings. He was there leading them each step of the way: “Now the Lord was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them in the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel day or night. He did not remove the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21-22, NIV)

Each stop along their route had a specific purpose. They were not aimlessly wandering–God was guiding them intentionally throughout their journey. Let this be an encouragement if you are in a season of wandering. God is right there beside you, waiting for you to learn the valuable things He has to teach.

Not every wilderness experience requires the help of a trained counselor like mine did (but don’t rule it out if you think it might help). No matter what we’re facing, our difficulties can always be used for greater good when we trust God, stay engaged in His Word and enlist the support of wise and godly people.

I love the message of Steven Curtis Chapman’s song “Glorious Unfolding.” It reminds me never to put a period where God intends a comma. God sees so much farther than our limited view of life. Our wilderness journeys are temporary experiences designed to take us to places better than we can imagine. We can stand firm, trusting He’ll walk beside us through the wilderness and all the way to the Promised Land.

Click on the link to enjoy “Glorious Unfolding” and to watch the inspiring story the video tells.

Shirer, Priscialla; One in a Million, Journey to Your Promised Land; Lifeway Press, 2009


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Putting Priscilla Shirer’s One in a Million in Context

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This week marks the beginning of a new Bible study for Focused Living at CPC. Priscilla Shirer uses the story of the Israelites traveling to the Promised Land as a jumping off place for inspiring Christians to experience God’s power and abundance. If you’re like me, you learn best by seeing the big picture before zeroing in on specific details. Since the study jumps into the story assuming you know what happened earlier, I thought putting the story into context might be helpful. In case you don’t have time to read Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy this week, you’ll find a brief history of events summarized below with Scripture references included for you to read further.  You might find this history helpful even if you aren’t doing Priscilla’s study.

Background from Genesis & Exodus

To understand the significance of the Jews’ wandering in the desert, we need to look at a brief history of the key people and events that led up to that time in their history. (Note: the names “Jews,” “Israelites,” “Hebrews,” and “Children of Israel” are used interchangeably here).

Abraham is known as the father of the Jewish nation. In Genesis 15 God made a covenant with Abraham telling him that he would be the father of a great nation and that he would give him a large portion of land (ie: The Promised Land). Side note: A covenant is a solemn promise or undertaking between two parties; a mutual understanding that binds the two parties together and agrees they will fulfill certain obligations. Sometimes God made covenant promises to people that did not require anything of them in return, other times He made them between people and Himself.

Many years later, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had a son, Isaac, when they were 100 and 90 years old, respectively. (In a weak moment prior to this, Abraham also fathered a son named Ishmael with his servant, Hagar, but that is another story.)

Isaac married Rebekah and they had twin boys named Jacob and Esau. (Genesis 25:19-34)

Although he was the second twin born, Jacob became the patriarch of the family by tricking Esau out of his birthright (another story for another day found in Genesis 27). God promised that He would give Jacob many descendants and that the earth would be blessed through him and his offspring. God promised to watch over Jacob and never to leave him. (Genesis 28:10-19). God later changed Jacob’s name to Israel. (Genesis 32:28) This name is where we get the terms “Israelites” and “Children of Israel.”

Jacob had twelve sons with four different women (two of them were his wives, Leah and Rachel, and two were his wives’ maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah).   These twelve sons later became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.   Their names were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph (his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh were heads of the two “half tribes”), Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher (Genesis 35:23-26).

One of Jacob’s sons was named Joseph. He was Jacob’s favorite son from his most cherished wife, Rachel. Because of this favoritism, Jacob was despised by his older brothers. (Part of his story is told in the Broadway musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” Part is also told in the book The Red Tent) Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and lied to their father, telling him Joseph had been killed. Through a long chain of amazing events, Joseph ended up later in life being second in command to the pharaoh in Egypt. Joseph saved the Egyptians from a famine through God’s divine wisdom. During the famine, his brothers came to Egypt for food. They did not know Joseph was still alive or that he was second in command. Eventually Joseph revealed his identity to them and forgave them for selling him into slavery. He even noted how God had used their evil intent to bring good into his life and the lives of others. (Great story- check it out in Genesis 37 & 39-45). Eventually, with Joseph’s blessing, his eleven brothers brought their families and their parents to settle in Egypt. (Genesis 37-50 tells this story).

After Joseph died, a new pharaoh came to power in Egypt who did not know Joseph or the history of the Israelites. By this time, Joseph’s eleven brothers and all of their family members were growing in numbers. The new pharaoh feared they would become so numerous and powerful that they would overthrow him if given the opportunity, so he enslaved them and made them do forced labor building his cities. (God had foretold this to Abraham in Genesis 15:13). The Hebrews continued to bear children and grow in numbers, leading the pharaoh to command that all Hebrew baby boys be killed.

Finally, after about 400 years of enslavement, Moses was born. To prevent him from being slaughtered with the other Hebrew boy babies, his mother strategically placed him in a basket in the Nile River near the location Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. The plan worked and Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from the river and raised him as her own in the palace. Moses’ mother even got to be his wet nurse. (Exodus 1 & 2)

Moses lived in Egypt as a son of Pharaoh for 40 years. At age 40 he killed an Egyptian slave master who was beating a fellow Jew. When the murder was discovered, he fled to the land of Midian, where he married and lived as a shepherd for the next 40 years. When Moses was 80, God appeared to him in the desert and spoke to him from a burning bush. He commanded Moses to go back to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to set the Israelites free. Moses was to lead them to the Promised Land, which had been promised to Abraham long before. (Exodus 3 & 4)

God promised He would be with Moses. God also told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart and that miraculous signs would have to be performed before Pharaoh would agree to let the people go (Exodus 7).

God sent ten plagues on Egypt, one at a time, to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Each time, Moses warned Pharaoh in advance that God would send a plague, but he wouldn’t listen. The plagues were: 1) turning all the water in Egypt to blood 2) filling the whole country with frogs 3) filling the land with gnats 4) sending swarms of flies 5) sending a plague on all of the livestock 6) sending a plague of boils on people and animals 7) sending a violent hailstorm   8) sending a plague of locusts to ravage the land 9) sending darkness over the land for three days straight.

When Pharaoh still would not relent, God sent the final plague. This time, all the firstborns in every family would be killed. The Passover was God’s protection against this plague for the Israelites. (Exodus 12:1-30)

After the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites leave Egypt. (Later he changed his mind and pursued them into the wilderness. You may know it if you ever watched the animated movie “The Prince of Egypt” or the new movie “Exodus.”)

In Exodus 12:14-20 God commanded the Israelites to commemorate the Passover for the generations to come. The celebration was also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  (This is the feast Jesus and His disciples celebrated together on the night before He was crucified.)

God led the Israelites as they fled Egypt and began their journey to the land He promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

After fleeing Egypt and passing through the Red Sea, on dry ground, Moses led the Israelites into the desert on their way back to the Promised Land. At the base of Mount Sinai, God re-established His covenant with the people, renewing what He established with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In Exodus chapters 19-24, God added further clarification to the covenant, which became known as the Sinaitic Covenant (because it was established at Mt. Sinai).  One of the central portions of the covenant God gave was the Ten Commandments. These commandments explained God’s design to enable His people to have a right relationship with Him and others. (Exodus 20)

God promised that He would give the Israelites the Promised Land, but on the brink of entering it, they lost trust in Him. When the Israelites reached the border of the Promised Land, they sent spies to scout out the land and the people living in it. The spies reported that it was a good land that flowed with milk and honey.   However, they also reported “The people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:28 & 31 NIV)

Joshua and Caleb were the only two of the twelve spies who disagreed with this assessment and encouraged the people to trust God and take possession of the land with God’s help.   Ultimately, the people allowed their fear to consume them and refused to enter the land. (Numbers 14:1-24)

Joshua and Caleb were the only two people out of the roughly two million Jews who trusted God and believed He would deliver the Promised Land into their hands. This is what inspired Priscilla Shirer’s title One in a Million. The rest of the Israelites refused to trust God and carry out His plan. Once the people made this decision, God declared that they would be cursed to wander in the desert until they died. The ten spies who scouted the Promised Land and gave a bad report to the people were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. Only Joshua and Caleb survived. Because of this, the people changed their minds and tried to enter the Promised Land, although they no longer had God’s blessing. They were attacked by the inhabitants and turned away. (Numbers 14)

Because of their failure to trust God, the Israelites were cursed to stay in the desert for forty years until the entire disbelieving generation passed away. God would keep His covenant and go before them into the Promised Land, but only two members of the original group would enter the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb.

At the end of his life, Moses spoke to the next generation of Israelites as they were on the brink of crossing into the Promised Land. All of them were born while their parents and grandparents had wandered in the desert for forty years. He laid out the blessings they would experience if they kept their covenant with God and the curses they would endure if they didn’t. (Deuteronomy 28-30)

Priscilla Shirer refers to different segments of this Bible story throughout the study. She also uses the parts of it as symbols for different aspects of our spiritual lives:

-Egypt represents times when we are/ were in bondage to sin.

-The desert wandering/ wilderness times symbolize seasons in our lives when we are trying to follow God’s plans but are unsure of where He is leading us. They can also be actual times of difficulty, such as dealing with an illness or financial struggles; emotional, such as dealing with broken relationships or grief/loss; or spiritual, such as struggling to figure out God’s plan.

-The Promised Land represents abundant life found in Christ (John 10:10). Reaching the Promised Land is about our attitudes changing as we choose to trust God. Our actual circumstances may or may not have changed, but we’ve experienced a personal and spiritual transformation that causes us to approach them from a new perspective.

Hopefully this summary will help you to have a sense of the context of the Old Testament references as you complete the study.

If you can identify with being in bondage to sin or wandering in the wilderness then you will find comfort and encouragement in Kari Jobe’s song “I Am Not Alone.” Click on the link for five minutes of great worship.


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A Fresh Start

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Our car gleamed in the early morning light as we pointed it north and drove up the freeway. Freshly washed and waxed, the sun’s first rays reflected off the sleek surface as we began our ten-hour trek. It’s become a ritual in our family to begin a driving trip with a clean car. We even have a saying for it: “Clean cars run better.” It seems best to start a long road trip keeping this practice in mind. It’s never failed us yet.

Crossing the border from California into Oregon, a light dusting of snow began to fall. By the time we reached Portland, the grime of the road and the wet weather had dulled the sheen of the once-clean car. It was bound to happen, so why did we bother? Maybe it’s because there is something that feels good about starting fresh.

It could be the reason these words resonate with me:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23, NIV)

Yes, the car got dirty after we washed it, but it was much easier to clean when we got home because the layers of dirt weren’t thick and hadn’t been there long. The same thing is true of our spiritual lives: every morning we get a new day to start again. God’s compassion for us is renewed and He shows His faithfulness. No matter how messy the day before was or how much we messed up, God lets us push the re-start button.

Maybe that’s why we celebrate a New Year. It’s why January First marks the day people resolve to start over and try again. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s never futile to begin anew. Each time, we learn and grow in new ways. Plus, it’s a chance to clear off the grime of past sins before they consume us. When we take time to do spiritual spring-cleaning, to examine our hearts and to receive God’s compassion afresh, we stay more closely aligned with His Spirit. The longer and further we stray, the harder it is to re-engage.

The beginning of a New Year is a great chance to regain lost ground and claim new territory in our walks with God. It’s the time to open a new devotional or to begin reading our Bibles daily. It’s a blank page, just waiting to be filled with new possibilities. If you’re a part of CPC’s Focused Living, you’ll be hearing much more about that as we begin our new study by Priscilla Shirer called One in a Million: Journey to Your Promised Land. If you’re a regular reader from beyond the group, I’ll be sure to keep it relevant for you.

I can’t wait to start fresh, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Click on the link to be inspired by Lincoln Brewster’s song: “Made New.”