Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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What’s Your Flavor? – Sermon on the Mount Part 3a

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Three ingredients, that’s all it takes. I have to laugh every time someone asks me for the recipe that makes my homemade burgers taste so good. I think the key is that I hand-mix the seasoned salt, minced onions and Worcestershire sauce into the ground beef. The flavors mingle into a perfect salty-spicy blend because the patties are seasoned from the inside out. The thicker-than-store-bought burgers also stay juicier, making them even more flavorful.

Sometimes when I’m in a rush, I’ve tried cutting corners by just sprinkling the seasonings on the top of the burgers, but my family can always tell the difference. Meat that is marinated or flavored throughout has a better taste and texture. (Are you getting hungry yet?)

I was thinking about those delicious burgers recently as I studied Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13, ESV) Jesus appealed to our sense of taste here to make an important point. A spice like salt serves a specific purpose- it brings flavor to food. There would be no reason to sprinkle it on if it didn’t add flavor, would there?

So what is Jesus’ point in this illustration? Could it be that we, as His followers, are called to “flavor” the atmosphere surrounding us with His love and grace? When people spend time with us, do we influence them in ways that honor Jesus and draw them closer to Him?

When you answer these questions, don’t just think of those times when you’re at your best. Think about who you are when you assume no one else is paying attention. How do you flavor the atmosphere when you’re in a hurry or your day isn’t going the way you want? How do you flavor the atmosphere when someone is making life difficult or when a long-term situation is not ideal? What about when you’re having health issues or relationship troubles?

At times when we’re struggling with challenges, we’re prone to fall into temptation and sin. We rationalize and make excuses for our poor behavior and we lose our “saltiness” in the process. This also happens when we let sin go unaddressed in our lives or when we begin to conform to the culture around us instead of adhering to God’s standards. When we fall into this trap, the taste we leave behind with others is no different from the rest of the world.

When salt is mined, it contains impurities that must be removed before we consume it. These impurities cause it to lose some of its flavor. In the same way, we can lose some of our Christ-like essence when we mix with impurities in the world. Although the Holy Spirit never leaves us once we’ve surrendered our lives to Christ, we must be careful to keep sin from hindering His work in and through us.

Salt doesn’t expire, but when ingredients like iodine or other seasonings are added to it, they reduce its shelf life. In the same way, we reduce our effectiveness in the kingdom of heaven when we add to God’s grace with our man-made lists of rules and behaviors (similar to the Pharisees that were listening to the Sermon on the Mount.)

It’s brilliant, really, that with this one analogy Jesus addressed two extremes– those wrapped in the impurity of worldly choices and those wrapped in the legalism of adding to God’s perfect plans. Since Jesus was there when salt was created along with the rest of the earth, I guess it makes sense.

It has been estimated that salt has 14,000 different industrial uses. It plays a major role in the food industry as well as in medicine, metal fabrication, chemical production and more. Clearly, it plays a crucial part in many aspects of life. Like salt, God uses Christians in countless ways to bless others and further His kingdom. Responding to Jesus’ call to be the salt of the earth gives us the privilege and responsibility of having a tremendous impact on our world when we marinate in God’s Word and let His Spirit flavor our lives.

We can’t become “salty” on our own—it only happens through Holy Spirit. Click on the link to hear Francesca Battistelli sing “Holy Spirit” and invite Him to fill the atmosphere surrounding you right now.

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Shining God’s Light in The Darkness- Sermon on the Mount Part 3b

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Author’s note: This post has been edited and re-posted with a new song attached. It originally appeared as part of a series on MaryJo Sharp’s study Why Do You Believe That?  

 Descending 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 Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

“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)

Put simply, Jesus calls us to be lights that lead people towards Him in a world of spiritual darkness. For 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. Consistency of character shows more about us over the long haul.

Many people forget the words others say to them but few forget how another person made them feel. The impression we leave on others 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.

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Everything is Opposite- Sermon on the Mount Part 2

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Squinting at the scoreboard above our high school’s pool, I was surprised to see how many goals were posted on the “Guest” side for the evening’s water polo game.   My son and his teammates had been playing well and I was sure they’d scored a few more goals than the board showed for our home team. After a few minutes of confusion, I recalled we weren’t originally scheduled to host the game. The location had changed because our opponent’s pool was having maintenance issues, making us the “Guest” team in our own pool.

Turning to the fans surrounding me in the stands, I reminded them that our goals were being logged on the “Guest” side of the board. Most breathed a sigh of relief. Few of their sons had remembered to tell them this important detail before rushing out the door. Every time new fans arrived we told them the same information: “We’re the guest team tonight.” It’s always helpful to know how to read the scoreboard accurately so you can cheer for the right team.

As I opened the pages to Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount Bible study this week, my experience at the water polo game seemed like a fitting analogy. Reading Jesus’ opening words in the Sermon on the Mount evoked that same disconcerting “everything is opposite” sort of feeling.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10, ESV)

In the world’s eyes, few of the descriptions listed by Jesus would be considered a blessing—no one wants to be poor in spirit, mourning or meek. Few people in our world value righteousness, give mercy or show purity of heart. Fewer still strive to be peacemakers or feel blessed in the face of persecution.  Most of the things our world values are completely opposite.

However, as followers of Christ, we don’t see things from the world’s perspective. We know we’re just travelers passing through on our way to our true home in heaven. Jesus makes this clear in John 15 when He explains “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world” (John 15:19a, NIV).

Our citizenship is in heaven. While we’re here on earth, our purpose is to be a dwelling for the Holy Spirit to bring God’s light into the world. (Paul talks about this in Ephesians 2:19-22, if you want to read more). In essence, we’re on the “Guest” team while we’re here and are called to invite others onto it with us by sharing the good news of Jesus with them.

Living the kind of opposite life Jesus describes is difficult, especially when the world around us doesn’t see value in what we’re doing. There can be lonely moments when we’re the only ones in the stands cheering for the “Guest” team because no one else cares about what matters to God. What I’m realizing, though, is that being blessed doesn’t always mean experiencing comfort or ease on this side of heaven.  We live with the tension of knowing Jesus has claimed the victory over sin, death and Satan, but our world has not yet embraced this truth. When the game ends, however, all people will look at the scoreboard and see that the “Guest” team has posted the win.

I thank God for blessing me with fellow travelers on my faith journey who walk beside me to encourage and challenge me as we strive together to live like Jesus. It’s a blessing to live an “everything is opposite” kind of life with others who know we’re just passing through on our way to a better place. It’s all about having our focus in the right place.

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Learning to Roll with Jesus- Sermon on the Mount Part 1

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I tried to act casual as I slid the Bible across the kitchen counter to my son while he shoveled cereal into his mouth.  Oblivious, he continued to stare at the tiny screen on his phone as he ate in silence. I waited for him to notice me, but he was totally transfixed by the game he was playing.  Finally, I realized my subtle approach wasn’t going to work. When I couldn’t stand his unresponsiveness any longer, I cleared my throat and tried starting a conversation.  “So buddy, how’s it going with reading the Bible every day?”

“Huh?” he answered, looking up with a Cheerio dangling from his lip

“Remember, one of our family goals this year is to read the Bible every day?” I answered, trying to sound lighthearted.

Without saying a word, he reached for the Bible, thumbed to a section in the New Testament, read silently, closed it with a thump and slid it back across the counter toward me. I had no idea what he read.  Not wanting to push my luck, I held back from asking him to discuss the deep spiritual truths he’d just encountered. I had to trust that reading the words was at least a good start.

This breakfast “conversation” was prompted by a plan my husband and I implemented several years ago to set goals with our boys at the beginning of each new school year. Besides daily Bible reading, we established goals for household responsibilities, athletics, academics, relationships and spiritual growth. Ideally, they are supposed to prompt our boys to make important things a priority when lesser things vie for their time—which is why Bible reading and taking initiative are on the list, but playing video games isn’t.

On paper, the goals seem attainable, in reality, they are difficult to accomplish consistently.   Still, having these goals lays a foundation and helps us to hold each other accountable when we veer off course.   They help to set our family’s rhythm as we move through the seasons. Essentially, they are our way of saying “This is how our family is going to roll for the next year.”

Jesus does a similar thing for us through His teaching in the gospel of Matthew, chapters five through seven, usually known as The Sermon on the Mount. The sermon takes place early in Jesus’ ministry as people were beginning to follow Him so they could hear His compelling teaching. The opening lines of the chapter tell us that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain and sat down. His disciples came to Him and He started to teach them as a loving older brother explaining, “This is how we roll in the kingdom of heaven.” (Not an exact quote, obviously). His purpose was to teach them how to be part of His Father’s family, the royal family. Our purpose for studying His words is the same.

Learning how to be part of God’s family is a lifelong pursuit. It requires commitment and focus. And if you’ve read the text of Jesus’ sermon before, you know that much of the teaching isn’t easy to swallow. There are portions that will make you squirm, other parts that will convict you and others that might seem impossible to attain. Don’t let that stop you from pressing forward. Just like my family’s goals, we aren’t always going to be successful in following what He lays out in the sermon. He knows we aren’t perfect, but He’s there to guide us as we learn from Him. It’s not about trying harder, but about letting God teach us how to be part of His family. It’s about learning the rhythm of His grace and then getting in sync with it.*

For those who have accepted Jesus, we are eternally part of God’s royal family. We are already welcomed, loved and approved by Him because of Jesus. The teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is not intended to weigh us down with rules but to teach us how to mimic our Father in heaven. Every family has a way of operating, Jesus is teaching us how to do that in His family.*

Jesus ends the sermon explaining why listening to His words and putting them into practice is vital: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25, ESV) Keep that in mind so you can persevere even if the going gets tough during this study.

I am excited to climb up on the mountainside with you and to sit at the feet of Jesus as we learn from Jen Wilkin’s study Sermon on the Mount. Whether you are part of CPC’s Focused Living Bible study or reading this somewhere else on your own, I hope you’ll be inspired, encouraged and challenged by what you find here each week.

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What’s Your Prayer Strategy?

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I just finished the last page of my prayer journal a few days ago. The first time I wrote in one from cover to cover was during my freshman year in college. Since then I’ve filled countless blank books with a variety of prayers. My attic has a large plastic bin filled with them. I’m not picky about how they look– some are beautifully covered with fabric or leather; others are castaway composition books from my kids’ backpacks. Most have papers folded inside with prayer requests from different people or groups I’m involved with.

As I’ve grown in my faith and knowledge of Scripture, my prayers have changed and matured over the years.   These days I pray a lot less about fixing circumstances and a lot more about seeing God’s will be done. I’ve also grown more strategic and less reactionary in my prayers.

Strategic prayers envision the ways God can move in a given situation and then invite Him to do it. Praying this way involves studying Scripture to learn the will of God and then aligning your prayers with it.

The first time I learned about praying strategically was in college when I got involved in a campus ministry. My Bible study leaders encouraged me to pray, inviting God to use me in the lives of others around me. The answer I received from Him felt daunting, but clear. The people I’d have the most opportunity to impact were the girls in the sorority I’d recently pledged. Before joining it, I’d prayed fervently that God would place me in the house where He wanted me. I envisioned Him leading me to a house that had a small but mighty group of Christians who would show me how to be a light in the darkness.  After pledging, I quickly discovered I was the only person actively pursuing God in a house of 160 girls. To say I was intimidated to shine for Jesus among them would be an understatement–especially considering I was a lowly freshman with no clout. I was disheartened and confused.  However, through the encouragement of several godly mentors, I started praying that the Lord would give me courage and move in the hearts of girls in the house.

My prayers weren’t answered overnight. There were many hard and lonely moments during my college years, but I stuck to my prayer strategy and found encouragement from a few scattered Christian friends who were doing the same for their fraternities and sororities. Ultimately, we saw God move in the hearts and lives of many students who were part of a system typically known more for celebrating sin than pursuing righteousness. By my senior year I was leading a Bible study that was consistently attended by 10 girls in my house. I was also part of a thriving ministry with Christians in other fraternities and sororities that focused on sharing the gospel with the Greek system at large.

Since then, I’ve learned the value of praying strategically about many areas of my life. My journals are filled with prayers asking God to impact my marriage, my children, and my community. My husband and I pray for our finances and the stewardship of the resources God has given us. We pray He would lead us to the people He wants to impact through us. And we pray to be equipped for serving well and engaging in spiritual battle.

Recently I saw “War Room,” a movie that beautifully illustrates the idea of praying strategically.   It emphasizes the value of making time to be intentional with your prayers in the same way you would be strategic with other goals in your life. The way characters in the movie are transformed is not exaggerated for dramatic effect. I know it’s real, because I’ve seen it in my life and in the lives of many people around me. If you haven’t gone to see it yet, put it at the top of your “to do” list.

In the meantime, start thinking about your prayer strategy for the next 4-6 months. Take some time to think about the people and places in your life where you would like to see God work. Write your goals down and return to the list daily to pray. Keep track of the ways God answers prayers and be sure to thank Him. Then, ask Him to show you what new strategy He’s prompting you to add. Get a journal or write lists and verses on paper and tape them in your closet like the characters in “War Room.” The logistics of your prayer strategy don’t really matter– the important part is that you have one.

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14, NIV)

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Are You Being Robbed?

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If you grew up or had kids or grandkids anytime between 1952 and today, then you’re probably familiar with E.B. White’s classic story Charlotte’s Web. Who doesn’t remember the lovable pig Wilbur and the clever spider Charlotte who saves him from becoming a Christmas ham? You may also remember the less lovable rat, Templeton, who begrudgingly provides the scraps of paper with words to inspire Charlotte’s web making. Templeton’s chief occupation involves digging through trash to find morsels of food and stealing items to stash in his nest.   As distasteful as he is, he’s a necessary and humorous foil to the more endearing characters.

My family had its own version of “Templeton” raiding our backyard shed over the last year. It turns out that the dried corn kernels used to fill the beanbags for our Corn Hole game made a tasty treat for an unsavory critter.   He wormed his way into the shed through a hole in the rotting plywood floor and would steal different objects for his nest, leaving behind evidence that he’d been well-fed (let’s just say those weren’t raisins on the floor of the shed…)

Eventually we bought new beanbags with “synthetic corn” that holds no appeal to critters. We also unscrewed the metal shed from its foundation and replaced the rotting plywood with new planks. When my husband and I removed the dilapidated floor, we found “Templeton’s” lair in the space underneath (thankfully he had long since vacated the premises—probably when the corn ran out). We were shocked to discover his nest lined with the blue and yellow remnants of the corn bags along with the fabric sack we’d used to store them. He had been stealing from us for months and we had no idea.

Cleaning out the mess made me think about Jesus’ words in the gospel of John:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV)

I started wondering how often we’re oblivious as Satan steals things right beneath our noses. Like a rat, he’s sneaky and quiet, expanding his territory little by little. He might leave trace evidence of his presence, but it’s subtle enough to annoy us without setting off alarms. He’ll keep stealing from us as long as we let him. We’re often unaware of his antics until he’s done quite a bit of damage. Finally, we take authority and say, “Enough!” I’ve been asking myself about some of the covert ways he steals from us:

-When have we let him rob us of joy or gratitude by focusing on what we lack instead of recognizing all that we have?

-When have we let him steal our peace and contentment by worrying instead of trusting God?

-When have we let him color our attitudes with negativity, stealing our hope and making us bitter?

Like a rat, Satan digs through the trash of our lives to see what he can use to distract and discourage us from God’s greater purposes. Our weaknesses are obvious to him and he knows just how to capitalize on them to make us feel powerless and hopeless.

-Insecurity rears its head when we focus on how others aren’t meeting our emotional needs instead of focusing on God, the One who loves us unconditionally.

-Self-confidence falters when we compare ourselves to others and feel we lack something, while pride gloats when we compare ourselves to others and feel we’re superior.

-Anger and resentment simmer in us when we believe we’re entitled to a certain privilege or comfort that’s been denied to us.

Are you letting Satan dig through your trash or steal from you without even realizing it? For those who have accepted Christ, we’ve been given authority to banish Satan and his insidious bag of tricks.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NIV)

Let me encourage you to take your thoughts captive today. Claim the authority you have in Christ and invite the Holy Spirit to demolish any strongholds Satan has quietly established in your life. Don’t let that sneaky rat steal your joy and keep you from having the abundant life God promises.

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