Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Keeping the Fire Going

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It only takes a spark to get a fire going

and soon all those around can warm up in its glowing.


That’s how it is with God’s love

once you’ve experienced it;


you spread his love to everyone;


you want to pass it on.

(“Pass It On” by Kurt Kaiser, The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 572)

If you grew up in the church or attended camps in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there is a good chance you’re humming the tune to the lyrics above right now. I can still picture myself sitting among friends at youth group swaying to the song and basking in the glow of deep friendship rooted in Christ.

The image of a campfire gives a great analogy for our walk of faith. Drawing near to the warmth of a fire on a dark night comforts and soothes us. Sitting side by side with others, we feel the blessing of fellowship and the joy of sharing a mutual love and desire for God. The darkness of the world is kept at bay as we circle the fire and delight in the light of God’s love. Each log thrown on stokes the flames, much like studying God’s Word fans the flames of faith in us. When we respond to God’s love by serving others, we build community and our faith grows, just as a fire grows larger as it’s fed by oxygen.

But what happens when it’s time to call it a night and head out into the dark? As people disperse, the circle of faces lighted by the dancing flames grows smaller. The fire that burned brightly eventually becomes no more than smoldering embers. So what do we do with all of those warm feelings and deep connections we’ve made around the fire?

If you’ve been attending the Focused Living Bible study for the past year, you know that is the season we’re entering now. With our last official meeting taking place this week, the circle of people around the campfire will scatter. The promise of summer ease and fun beckons us, but the lack of consistent fellowship can dampen our spirits after a while.

Ideas for Staying Connected

Although our regular Thursday meetings are coming to an end, there is no reason to let the fire go out. Yes, it takes work to keep the embers from growing cold, but it’s worth it. Your spiritual life shouldn’t go on hiatus just because your Bible study isn’t meeting.

There are many ways to stay connected with God, to be in fellowship and to study His word during the summer months. Take some time to pray and ask God to keep the embers lit during the summer months.  Below you’ll find a few ideas to help you.

Engage this Blog Actively

An easy thing you can do is to follow this blog (Focused Living is taking a break but the blog will continue). Throughout the summer, I’ll explore new topics so you can continue learning and growing in God’s Word during our break.

If you’ve been relying on the weekly update e-mails from Focused Living to connect to the blog, you’ll need to look at the column to the right of this post and scroll down to the bottom where  you’ll find the word “Follow.” Type your e-mail address in the blank field that appears and click “submit.” Once you’re following the blog, you’ll receive a copy of it automatically in your inbox each time I post a new one.

To engage further, click on “leave a comment” at the top of a post. Once you do this,  a blank field labeled “Leave a reply” will appear at the bottom of the post.  Start typing in the field that says “Enter your comment here…” This is where you can write your thoughts about it. (Ok, that might be obvious but I’m trying to be clear here).

The comment section is a place to ask questions, share insights or extend ideas further. This is a great opportunity to dialogue with others who are reading along too. Commenting allows you to continue sharing in community and discussing the materials with others no matter where you are. It’s a way to become an active participant instead of a passive reader.

Other Ideas for Staying Connected with God’s Word and Others

-Choose a Bible study book you can do on your own

-Find a friend or group of friends you can stay connected with for encouragement and prayer regularly (either in person, or by e-mail or text)

-Join a summer Bible study

-Open your home to meet with a small group for study and prayer

-Make going to church regularly a priority

-Visit different churches while you’re away on vacation

Hear Live Teaching Thursday, April 30

If you are a regular at Focused Living, be sure to attend our end of the year celebration on Thursday, April 30. I’ll be doing a short teaching to wrap up our entire year of study. (Yes, I’ll cram 28 weeks of meetings and countless hours of individual study into a twenty-minute talk).  Check back here next week for notes on the talk.

Enjoy a Great Song

In keeping with the theme of “fire,” don’t miss this week’s inspiring song “Soul on Fire” by Third Day.

May this summer be one that your continued pursuit of God causes you to have a “soul on fire.” I can’t wait to hear about it.

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Shining God’s Light in the Darkness

IMG_7665Descending down the paved path, our kids skipped beside us, giddy with anticipation.   We were on vacation with two other families and the fourteen of us had decided to explore a cave we’d seen advertised on a roadside sign. As we neared the entrance, a park ranger stationed at a booth nearby called out to us, “Do you folks have some flashlights? The cave is a mile long and it gets mighty dark and cold in there.”

We held up a few puny flashlights we’d planned to share among the group. He smiled in a way that let us know how pathetic we were. “It’s up to you, but I’d suggest renting a few lanterns. You’re going to want to keep close tabs on those little ones.” He gestured to the gaggle of kids surrounding us. Pooling together all the cash we had, we rented three lanterns and walked toward the adventure awaiting us at the mouth of the cave.

Within minutes, our previously boisterous kids sidled close to the adults carrying the lanterns. We left the last rays of sunlight that had been shining into the opening as we moved into the depths of the darkness . Between the forty-two degree air and the utter blackness all around us, no one wanted to stray far from the group or the light. Without the lanterns to guide our way, it would have been a frightening (and probably very short) trek into the cave.

Although this adventure happened many years ago, I remembered it vividly as I read the final verse printed at the end of the Why Do You Believe That? workbook:

“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, NIV)

Mary Jo Sharp emphasizes the reason for knowing apologetics: “You are needed in the battle for truth…It is the work of the body of Christ: to bring truth, which is light, to mankind. We cannot afford to view this work as a luxury; lives are at stake.” (Why Do You Believe That? p. 135)

Put simply, Jesus calls us to be lights that lead people towards Him in a world of spiritual darkness. When we call ourselves Christians, this should be a given. Jesus says that our lights shine when we do good deeds, which in turn brings glory to God. While non-believers may not always affirm or recognize the light Christians bring into the world, they would definitely notice if it were absent.

It is important to keep in mind that our actions often speak more loudly than our words. Even a person who is a convincing apologist loses credibility if she is all talk and no action. Consistency of character speaks more loudly than our words over the long haul.

If you’re feeling discouraged because someone has stopped listening when you share your faith, try to focus on loving the person with your actions and praying for him or her instead.   This may be the light that shines God’s truth in a way they can’t deny. Be patient, this can be a slow process.

Six weeks ago we began studying apologetics with this verse: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

The instructions are pretty clear and consistent with the earlier verse we reviewed. Bringing light to the world involves some personal preparation.   We learn to revere Christ as Lord by spending time with Him daily.   We prepare ourselves to give answers for the hope we have by studying His Word.

Notice that the passage focuses not only on our words but also on how we conduct ourselves. We are to speak to others gently and respectfully. Many people forget the words others say to them but few forget how another person made them feel. The impression we leave on others through the way we treat them opens or closes doors for future opportunities to share our faith. It can take people a lot longer to recognize they are in spiritual darkness than physical darkness. Our world is full of distractions that comfort or anesthetize people into believing they don’t need God. But, there will come a day when they will recognize their need. If you’ve been there for them all along, they may finally realize the value of the light you have to offer.

So how can you be a light today? Maybe it’s as simple as smiling at someone. Maybe it’s offering a word of encouragement or sharing an inspiring song. Maybe it’s helping with a task or meeting a need. Maybe it’s telling them that God loves them.  Each interaction we have with another person provides a chance to make their world a little better and to shine our lights a little brighter.

Let’s apply my story about the cave to our spiritual lives. Imagine that upon accepting Christ, each new believer receives a lantern to carry out into the world where spiritual darkness prevails. When we love people with our actions and then have opportunities to share the truth of God’s Word, we are like the people in the cave holding the lantern. Those fumbling in the dark are drawn to the light and find comfort in its presence. Our world is drowning in spiritual darkness. We have the privilege of holding the lantern and leading them into the light one step at a time.

Click on the link to hear “Marvelous Light” by Ellie Holcomb. It’s an inspiring reminder of how God changes us and then gives us the opportunity to lead others towards His marvelous light.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-5axIcYFVA

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012, 2014.


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Changing Lives, Not Checking Boxes

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Standing on the bluff above the expansive tide pools, I watched as my son made his way to the water’s edge. We were enjoying the sunny spring day with friends at Half Moon Bay. They’d never been there before and were excited to explore the shallow pools at low tide. Picking our way along the slippery kelp covered rocks, I began pointing out creatures I recognized: light green anemones opened like exotic flowers, spiky purple sea urchins wedged in crevices and miniscule hermit crabs not much bigger than the head of a pin. With each discovery, our friends would cry out in wonder and delight. The tide pools were a thrilling, new experience for them.

I thought back to my first visit to Half Moon Bay on a field trip in grade school. The experience had not been quite as exciting. IMG_0333Carrying a clipboard and clutching a pencil, I’d been so intent on checking off the list of creatures I’d seen that I almost missed out on enjoying the amazing surroundings. It wasn’t until I’d finished the worksheet that I felt free to crouch next to the pools and gaze at the beauty and intricacy of the life teeming within them. Being a conscientious student didn’t always serve me well–I’d almost missed the point of the field trip altogether. I was only nine but had already been programmed to check off lists and fulfill obligations without recognizing the purpose or meaning behind what I was doing.

There is something embedded in human nature that makes us prone to labeling, organizing and categorizing everything we experience. We love to cross things off our to-do lists or check off the obligations we’ve fulfilled. Sadly, this can be true in our faith experiences too. We can do “spiritual” things without thinking about the real meaning behind them. That’s why I was thrilled to see Mary Jo Sharp address it in week 5 of Why Do You Believe That? She explains:

“One complaint I’ve heard a few times from non-Christians is they felt like Christians only cared about them as along as they were having a discussion about belief in Jesus Christ. They felt they were someone’s pet project instead of someone’s beloved friend.” (Why Do You Believe That? p. 103)

Armed with our new knowledge about apologetics, it could be tempting to look for opportunities to share what we’ve learned in a way that isn’t especially loving: “Not every situation will be the same, but remember to keep your intentions with individuals in check. The primary force behind sharing the gospel is love for others. It is not just to share what is true, because you think sharing truth, in and of itself, is loving.” (Why Do You Believe That? p. 103)

We shouldn’t engage in faith conversations just to unload information we’ve learned so we can check the box saying we put our lessons into practice.   Rather than letting zeal lead us, our conversations need to be driven by genuine love for others.

I can remember times in my life when I felt more like someone’s project than a person they cared about. Christians with personal agendas were a big turn off to me and I never responded well to them. Maybe it’s because I sensed they were motivated for the wrong reasons. I still remember a certain person vividly- she was an acquaintance in college that seemed insistent that I attend her particular church. The fact that I was growing in my faith with another Christian ministry didn’t seem to “count” in her eyes. I sensed she was more concerned with getting me to follow her program than encouraging my spiritual growth so I stopped returning her calls. Later I learned that her church was an emerging cult on my college campus. (I thank God for the Holy Spirit’s clear discernment in that situation).

Approaching people out of love and not as our next projects to tackle is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when we study apologetics. I couldn’t say it any better than the apostle Paul:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NIV)

We’ve learned some great information in our study of apologetics, but if we share it without love, it’s worthless. So, how does this look in every day life? Let’s use Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as our guide.

“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

-We don’t have to be in a rush to get people to see things in a different light. It’s important to give them time to absorb new truth little by little. Our kindness will show our genuine love for them. We should never be prideful about the knowledge we’ve gained or condescending to others.

“5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

-We shouldn’t disrespect others when our views differ in faith conversations. We must put personal agendas aside and not try to win them over for the sake of personal satisfaction. We need to keep our anger in check when we disagree about touchy topics.

“6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

-We need to keep persevering in showing love to others, even when they don’t respond to us.

The way we live our lives and treat others is the ultimate proof of God’s love. I guess that’s what makes love “the ultimate apologetic.”   Click on the link to hear a great song on this topic: “Proof of Your Love” by for King and Country.

Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012 & 2014.


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The Prequel to Easter

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Who doesn’t love a good prequel? Imagine you’ve savored every page of an amazing story and are sad when you come to the end. To your surprise, you discover the author has subsequently published a prequel that gives the whole backstory. While you read, you’re delighted to find that it brings greater meaning to the events in the original story.

As a child, I fell in love with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. They were introduced to me in their original order, which started with Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter first stumbling into the magical land of Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It was not until book six in the series, The Magician’s Nephew that I discovered how Narnia had been created, where the evil white witch came from and how a lamppost ended up in the middle of the forest in Narnia. These details had context and meaning for me because I’d already become captivated with the setting and characters in earlier books.

For many Christians, the New Testament is like reading a great story that happens near the end of a series. We often hear about Jesus before we learn anything else. Our first exposure to the Christian faith focuses on the crucial fact that Jesus died for our sins. But without context, we may not understand why we even need a savior. If we don’t understand the significance of all that came before it, the story is not complete. To understand the deep meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we must go all the way back to Genesis to examine the “prequel.”

To start, we need to understand the concept of a covenant, which defined simply is “a binding relationship based on a promise.” Pastor and author Tyler Scott explains: “In order to fully appreciate the meaning of this new covenant [made by Jesus in the New Testament], we need to understand what the old covenant meant. The old covenant first began to take shape in Genesis 2. There, God makes a covenant with Adam in language that is strong, clear and definitive:”

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’.” (Genesis 2:15-17 NIV)

Scott continues: ‘This is covenant language. God says, in effect, ‘I will give you this, if you keep the conditions of this covenant, I will do these things for you—but if you violate the conditions of this covenant, you will suffer certain consequences.’ That’s God’s covenant with Adam in Genesis 2…From the covenant with Adam and Eve, we move through the Old Testament and we see God making different types of covenants…and each of these Old Testament covenants anticipates the ultimate covenant, the new covenant, as it would be established and secured through the blood of Jesus Christ.” (The Marriage Ref pages 26-27)

Genesis 3 describes Satan in the form of a serpent tempting Adam and Eve to break their covenant with God, and ultimately bringing sin into the world. He plants seeds of doubt about God’s goodness. He influences them to be ungrateful for all that God has given them and to think He is holding out on them by not letting them eat from two of the trees in the garden.   Verse 15 describes the enmity between humans and snakes. “The offspring of the woman would eventually crush the serpent’s head, a promise fulfilled in Christ’s victory over Satan—a victory in which all believers will share.”   (Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes)

The choice Adam and Eve made had a ripple effect that changed the world for all time. The consequences of their choice changed the relationship between God and humans and forever altered the course of human history

Author and apologist Josh McDowell explains: “The Bible indicates that God created man and woman so he could share his love and glory with them. But Adam and Eve chose to rebel and go their own way. They left God’s love and protection contaminating themselves with that self-willed, grasping, prideful nature we call sin… God dearly loved Adam and Eve– even after they spurned Him—he wanted to reach out to them and save them from the deadly path they had chosen. But God faced a dilemma. Because God is not only loving but also holy, righteous, and just, sin cannot survive in his presence. His very holy, just, and righteous nature would destroy the sinful couple. “ (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p. 153)

Romans 6:23 makes this concept clear: “The wages of sin is death.” God’s holiness cannot coexist with sin. His holiness is like a fire that burns anything unholy in its presence.

God had a problem to solve when Adam and Eve chose to sin. Although He loved them, their choice to sin separated them from Him. “The Godhead—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—made an astounding decision. Jesus, God the Son, would take upon himself human flesh.” (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p. 153)

“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8, NIV)

“Because He was not only finite man but also infinite God, he had the infinite capacity to take on himself the sins of the world. When Jesus was executed on the cross more than two thousand years ago, God accepted his death as a substitute for ours. The just and righteous nature of God was satisfied. Justice was done; a penalty was paid. So at that point God’s love nature was set free from the constrictions of justice, and He could accept us again and offer us what we had lost in Eden—that original relationship in which we could experience his love and glory.” (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p. 154)

“When Jesus died on the cross, he died not only for us, but he also died to meet the holy and just requirements intrinsic in the basic nature of God. The contamination was removed so we could stand clean in his presence.” (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p. 155)

“When God looks at us, in spite of his tremendous love for us, he has to bring down the gavel and say death because He is a righteous and just God. And yet, because he is also a loving God, he was willing to come down off his throne in the form of the man Jesus Christ and pay the price for us, which was his death on the cross.” (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p.156)

“But God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, NIV)

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22, NIV)

Jesus made right what Adam and Eve had made wrong. Anyone who accepts the sacrifice He made can be reconciled with God.

“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19, NIV)

Understanding the prequel to Jesus’ death and resurrection makes it so much more meaningful to me. In the next few weeks I’ll wrap up our discussion of Why Do You Believe That? Then, in future posts, I’ll examine some of the other Old Testament covenants that pointed the way to Jesus. I hope reading the “prequels” will bring you a deeper understanding for what Jesus did for us. At the same time, I hope your appreciation for Scripture will grow as you see the many ways the Old and New Testaments weave together to make a complete story showing God’s incredible love for us.

(Side note: If you’ve never read the C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia go and get them from a library or bookstore and start reading!)

Click on the link to hear Kari Jobe’s song “Forever.” It’s a great reminder of what Jesus accomplished for us through His death and resurrection.

References:

Lewis, C.S.; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe & The Magician’s Nephew; HarperCollins; 2010.

McDowell, Josh & Sean; More Than a Carpenter; Tyndale House; 1977, 2005, 2009.

Scott, Tyler; The Marriage Ref: God’s Blueprint for a Happy, Healthy, Enduring Marriage; Condeo Press; 2011.

NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 2008