Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Investing Wisely

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My heart hammered in my chest as butterflies danced in my belly. Although my only physical activity was the darting of my eyes and the nervous shaking of my knee, I was exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. I’d spent the past four days waking up several hours before dawn, driving long distances to remote locations and nursing an aching back from sitting on hard, metal bleachers. It was the tenth and final game of my son’s biggest water polo tournament of the year. And although I was only a spectator as the drama unfolded in the pool each day, it often felt like a full body experience. The last game kept the crowd in suspense until the final moments. In the end, my son’s team clawed its way from behind to claim a hard fought victory.

As the teams lined up on the pool deck to shake hands, I asked myself why my family willingly submitted to such a costly experience.  Were the “bronze” medals my son’s team wore worth all of the effort? We’d spent a fair amount of money on travel, food, tournament fees, and accommodations. Beyond that, we’d spent our precious vacation time cramming into stands to cheer for our son’s team as it battled for victory in the pool. With each game we experienced a range of emotions from disappointment and frustration to pride and jubilation. Watching the gleeful team celebrate its third-place medal was satisfying, but not the real motivation behind our effort.

My husband and I viewed the time we took and the financial and emotional costs associated with the tournament (and the whole sport for that matter) as an investment in our son. It’s not that we have grand illusions that he’ll get a full ride to college or earn a spot on the Olympic team—it’s more about the life experience and opportunities for character development. Over the years, he’s learned much more than how to play the game of water polo. He’s discovered how to show respect for his coaches and the officials, how to work with a team, how to win graciously and how to handle disappointment maturely. He’s learned a lot about discipline, commitment and hard work.  He’s had fun making friends but has also learned how to deal with difficult people and situations. The dollars, time and emotions we’ve spent have been an investment in his character and in his growth toward manhood.

There’s a big difference between spending and investing. Once something is spent, it’s gone for good: like spending money on something that will eventually lose its value or become obsolete. Investing, on the other hand, gives a return. When we invest in things that are worthwhile, they return greater rewards.

Jesus told this story about the value of investing wisely:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

 19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

 22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

 24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

 28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25:14-30, NIV)

The bags of gold (translated as “talents” in other versions) represent the many resources God gives us to use during our lives. Every day we have a choice to invest them wisely, to squander them thoughtlessly or to keep them to ourselves, as the “wicked, lazy” servant did in the parable.

Thinking about the resources God has entrusted to me causes me to do a bit of soul-searching. It’s good to stop and consider if I’m as intentional with other areas as I’ve have been with my son’s involvement in sports. I try to ask myself periodically if I’m making worthwhile investments with the things listed below:

-My time (Am I following my own agenda? Am I generous or stingy with my time? Am I intentional about managing it wisely?)

-My relationships (Am I reaching out to people who need love and encouragement or focusing only on people who are part of my usual circle?)

-My finances (Am I generous? Do I tithe? Do I give sacrificially?)

-My natural abilities (Do I use them for my own benefit or to bless others and honor God?)

-My spiritual gifts (Do I know what they are? Am I using them regularly?)

-My intellect (What kinds of things do I put into my brain? Am I developing my mind and continually stretching myself to learn new things?  Am I using what I know to bless and benefit others?)

-My body (Am I exercising and sleeping enough so I can stay healthy? Do I put too much emphasis on my appearance? Do I have habits with food, alcohol or other substances that are unhealthy?)

-My tangible resources (Am I willing to open my home? Am I willing to help people with needs such as making meals, babysitting, doing extra carpool duty?)

-My spiritual life (Am I committed to growing in my relationship with God and my knowledge of His Word? Can I see signs of growth as I look back over the last few years?)

If one of the categories or questions causes you to stop and think, take some time to pray about it. Ask God to reveal whether or not you are making a wise investment with that particular topic. Let the Holy Spirit guide you and, above all, don’t try to tackle the entire list at once! Invest wisely one step at a time and know that God is saying to you “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I suspect a few people who read the list above are going to focus on the areas they need to grow and will react by feeling like failures.  If you’re tempted to beat yourself up, please don’t.  Instead, click on the link below and be encouraged by Casting Crowns’ song “Just Be Held.”

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The Thrill of Letting God Disrupt Your Patterns

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San Francisco’s Coit Tower stands 210 feet tall atop Telegraph Hill. As one of the city’s best-known landmarks, it was a regular stop for my parents with out of town guests during my childhood. I still remember tumbling out of our station wagon with my four siblings, my mom and whatever visitors happened to be getting the grand tour. My dad would patiently drive in circles through the packed parking lot as we took in the panoramic view. There was an elevator that went to the top of the tower, but we never made the ascent. With the size of our group and the number of tourists waiting in line, we never had the time to fit it in with all of the other sights. We figured the view from the bottom was good enough—even with the trees and bushes partially obstructing it.

Although I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life, it was not until a recent visit to San Francisco that I rode the elevator to the top of Coit Tower with my son.  The 360-degree view of the city and all the surrounding areas was worth the time and effort. In one direction, the tall buildings of the financial district rose up in front of the green waters of the bay. Moving a little further around, I could see the iconic towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and the red brick buildings of Ghiradelli Square. Just beyond that, Alcatraz Island stood sentinel in the waters just beyond Fisherman’s Wharf.   A little further to our right, the Bay Bridge intersected Yerba Buena Island before continuing across to the city. The view from the bottom paled in comparison.

Sometimes I wonder if we treat our faith like tourists hitting the highlights in a big city. We breeze through a lot of opportunities for growth without engaging them fully or delving deeply. We hear sermons or read devotionals and declare they are “good” but never make time to incorporate the truth we’re learning into our lives.  We’re content to make a loop through the parking lot and catch the view from below, not wanting to inconvenience ourselves with the time, effort and cost required to ascend the tower and see the view. We have routines that we follow and agendas to keep. We like what is predictable and manageable for our schedules and we get complacent.  Or we pack our weeks so full there isn’t time to engage in anything deeply and we’re hesitant to relinquish any of our precious “free time.”

Inviting God to do new things feels disruptive to our carefully ordered lives. We fear it will be messy and complicated to serve in new places with different people. Sometimes we’re afraid to let God use our gifts in new ways because the results are unpredictable. Although we know He wants to stretch us continually, it just doesn’t seem worth the cost. The time and effort we’d have to expend deter us from pressing on.

Even people who met Jesus face to face struggled with these issues. The gospel of Luke tells the story of three different people who encountered Jesus and claimed they wanted to follow Him. All three ended up turning away when they realized how disruptive it would be to their lives. You can read about them in Luke 9:57-62.

Contrasting that is the story of Jesus calling his first disciples, Peter, James and John. Luke’s gospel describes a day when Jesus preached to the people on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret as He stood in the boat of a fisherman named Peter. After working all night and catching nothing, Peter and his fishing partners, James and John, sat and listened to Jesus’ teaching. Once He was finished teaching, Jesus directed them to push out from shore and cast their nets even though they’d been unsuccessful the night before. Instead of balking at instructions from a non-fisherman, the men listened to Jesus and caught so many fish their boats began to sink. Their willingness to obey Him brought amazing results and revealed Jesus was no ordinary man.   After the miraculous catch of fish, He invited the three to follow Him. They responded in a way that humbles and inspires me:

“So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:11, NIV)

Peter, James and John abandoned their predictable lives and began the adventure of walking with Jesus. Their willingness allowed Him to use them in powerful ways. Think what they would have missed if they’d declined when Jesus asked them to follow Him.

Are you letting the predictable patterns of your life keep you from something new Jesus wants to do in and through you? Summer is a good time to evaluate your schedule for the coming year and to consider new opportunities. Is it time to step out of your comfort zone and get involved in something different? Is it time to test out that spiritual gift that’s been simmering on the back burner? Maybe you need to relinquish some of your cherished free time to volunteer or meet a need. Maybe it’s time to evaluate your finances and consider how you can bless others and honor God in new ways.

Will you trust God enough to pray and invite Him to stretch you in a new way? Will you let Him break you out of your routine and discover more joy? The view from the parking lot is nice, but the view from the top is beyond compare. It’s just a matter of letting Him change your vantage point. Are you ready to let Him take you there?

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Old vs. New

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There is a person in my life that causes me great angst at times. She’s critical of everything about me, always noticing my flaws and mistakes. When I don’t measure up to her standards, she’s ruthless in her criticism. No matter how many positive things I’m doing, she always notices what I’m not doing or what I could be doing more. She’s impatient, jealous and judgmental. She constantly compares me to others.

As much as I’d like to cut this person out of my life forever, I can’t seem to shake her completely. By now you’re probably wondering: who is this awful person?   Well, I call her “Old Me.” She’s the person I would be without God’s saving grace; she is my fleshly, worldly self.   Sadly, “Old Me” looks a lot like “New Me” on the outside, but her interior life is another story.

“Old Me” seems to show up when I haven’t been spending time with God consistently and renewing my mind in the truth of His Word. She deceives me into thinking I can perform for God to win His favor.   She focuses a lot on doing for God and not much on simply being with Him.

I was thinking about “Old Me” recently while reading Tim Chester’s book You Can Change. In it, he points out that many people change their behavior but are still not pleasing to God because their motives are impure.   When I think about the person I used to be (and that I can still be at times) I see that many of the things I did seemed good, but my reasons for doing them had more to do with proving myself or pleasing others than anything else. Chester explains: “We don’t do good works so we can be saved; we are saved so we can do good works. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith…not a result of works… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10).”

“New Me” experiences joy by doing good things God has prepared for me– it’s about responding to His love, not dutifully checking a box to feel good about myself or to gain approval from others.   In this frame of mind, my eyes are on God, not on myself. My desire is to please Him because I love Him, not because I’m trying to earn His favor.

One of the best passages that illustrates eliminating “Old Me” so that “New Me” can flourish comes from the gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus speaks to His disciples saying,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (John 15:5-9, NIV)

Remaining in God’s love impacts our perspectives and enables us to grow and thrive in our faith. The fruit He produces in us blesses and benefits others. (One of my pastors recently pointed out that a tree produces fruit for others to consume, not for its own benefit). For those abiding in God’s love, joy comes from growing deeper in our walks with Him and helping others to do the same. Conversely, when we don’t remain in His love, we’re not producing fruit–we’re trying to do things through our own effort to prove ourselves. For me, this is when “Old Me” tends to rear her head. In Jesus’ analogy of the vine, the withered branches represent “Old Me” and the only thing they’re good for is kindling.

This battle between “Old Me” and “New Me” happens more often than I’d like to admit. Maybe you can relate. We have a choice every day to abide with Christ, to remain in His love and to let Him renew our minds. The alternative is to do things our way.   It boils down to a standoff between living in our flesh and living by the Spirit. Let’s not be deceived by our “Old Me’s” anymore. God has already won the battle and we can embrace the truth that we are living under His grace. We are holy, righteous and redeemed, no matter what our old selves may try to tell us.

Mercy Me has an amazing song that speaks this truth. Click on the link to be encouraged by “Greater.”

Chester, Time; You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions; Crossway, 2010, p. 28


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Living Inside the Guardrails

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His bags were packed with clean, neatly folded clothes. Including sunscreen was perhaps overly optimistic, but I did hope the toothbrush and toothpaste would see a little action throughout the week. My thirteen-year old son was leaving for camp with our church’s youth group. If last year’s trip was any indicator, he’d come home wearing the same clothes and not having opened his toiletry bag even once. Personal hygiene issues aside, I was excited about his week away. For me, youth camps had always been a significant time of spiritual growth and good, clean fun.

My husband and I sat on the couch with our son a few minutes before his departure and tried to plant seeds for the week. “So, what kinds of goals do you have for camp?” His dad asked. “I dunno,” he said with a shrug. Trying to prime the pump, I threw out a few suggestions, “Maybe there’s one new activity you can try that you didn’t do last year. Or maybe you could make a new friend.” He continued to sit without a glimmer of a response. I forged ahead, trying to sound casual. “I think it’s great to make spiritual goals when you go to camp. Like, maybe you could try reading your Bible or praying every day.” Still nothing. Finally, my husband told him we would just tell God about our goals for his week. He was fine with having us pray for him, but didn’t want to chime in. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. I couldn’t be more pleased that he attends youth group, gets excited to go to camp and likes the Christian music we listen to at home. I know a spiritual foundation is being laid in him and he’s heading in the right direction.  I certainly wasn’t mature in my faith at thirteen.

One thing I’m realizing about spiritual growth for people of any age is that it only happens when we position ourselves to receive God’s truth. This happens when we spend time in places and with people who value having a relationship with Jesus. Each decision we make brings us a step closer to God or a step farther away. The more we read the Bible and implement what we’re learning, the more we continue to mature spiritually and see the blessings of living aligned with God’s will.

It’s like driving on a winding road or over a bridge.   We know the guardrail on the side is there to protect us from harm and make us feel safe, not to limit our freedom.

Similarly, spending time in places and with people who value God gives us spiritual guardrails that keep us on track in our faith journeys. For my son, it’s youth group, summer camp and parents who pray for him often. For adults I know, it’s participating in Bible study consistently, attending church, enjoying Christian friendship and spending time alone with God. These things keep our hearts teachable and our minds open to the ways God wants to stretch us.

The apostle Paul explains it this way:

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:3-8, NIV)

Those who don’t know Christ live dangerously outside the guardrails that keep people pointed toward God. They are foolishly deceived by passions and pleasures, but think they are living ultimate freedom by giving in to their fleshly desires. Those in Christ, however, have become His heirs and have received the hope of eternal life. Because of this, followers of Christ devote themselves to doing what is good so that their lives bless others and honor God. The hindrances of sin no longer hold them back from living the abundant life God intends.

The ways we spend our time, the people we surround ourselves with, the things we watch, listen to and read all affect our view of God and His plans for us. How are you doing with living inside the protection of His guardrails? Are you pushing against them, enticed by the deceptions of our culture and its definition of “freedom”? What subtle influences pull you closer to Him? Which ones draw your attention away?

Every day the world bombards us with words and ideas that we can accept or reject in light of the truth of God’s Word. When we run towards Him, we remember we are beloved children of the King of Kings. Living inside the guardrails is exactly where I want to be.

Click on the link to hear the inspiring and upbeat song “Who I Am” by Blanca.