Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect

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Seeking Trustworthy Treasure- Sermon on the Mount Part 7


The poster hung on my brother’s bedroom wall. In it, brilliant white buildings with blue domed roofs perched on a craggy hillside. Below them, the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea sparkled under the bright sky. A large title at the bottom read “Santorini, Greece.” I would gaze at the poster and think, someday, I’m going to visit that place.

The years have come and gone, and although I’ve never been, I still hope to visit Santorini … someday. The list of trips I’d like to take has only grown with age, but the same two things hold me back: time and money. With my firstborn preparing to leave for college in two years, taking this trip probably isn’t the wisest use of our resources right now. Maybe you can relate. It seems the responsibilities of our daily lives often keep us from turning our dreams into realities.

I think sometimes that’s how we view Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount too. They sound lofty and appealing, but not particularly practical: So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33, NIV)

Jesus urges us to structure our priorities so that seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness are of utmost importance. This is for our benefit and His glory. It sounds reassuring to hear God knows our daily practical needs, but what does it look like to seek His kingdom first? Ironically, I think it has to do with the same two things: time and money.

Your Time

Seeking God’s kingdom first includes short and long term decisions about how we spend our time. To evaluate the short term, think back on the last 3-5 days and consider the following: How many times did you read your Bible, pray or acknowledge God first thing in the morning?   We prioritize what we value most, so if you had time to shower, drink a cup of coffee, read your e-mail or check the news before leaving home, then it’s likely you had the time to spend a few minutes with God. It’s a matter of choices. If you want to make daily time with Him a higher priority, maybe it’s time to pray and ask Him to show you how.

We also make longer-term decisions about how we invest our time, whether that is in a paid job, a volunteer position, a service opportunity or our free time. Do you pray and seek God’s will before making decisions? Do you invite Him to show you how to use your time to bless others and to honor Him? This is another simple but profound way to align your priorities to His.

Seeking God’s kingdom first means including Him in your day and asking for His wisdom about how you spend your time. Try a simple prayer like this first thing in the morning: “God, let my priorities match with Yours today. Show me where you want to expand Your kingdom and what part You want me to play in that. Use me to bless others and to honor You today.”

Your Money

How, exactly, do we seek God’s kingdom first with our finances? Is there a realistic way to apply Jesus’ teaching?  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NIV)

When our priorities align with God’s, we see money as a tool, not a source of security. God entrusts us with financial resources that provide for our needs. However, He also gives us opportunities to use them for His kingdom– whether that is supporting ministries, charities or specific people. When we are overly focused on our own comfort or security, we become self-centered and blind to the ways our material resources could further God’s kingdom.

If trusting God with finances is a struggle for you, pray and admit that to Him. Then, the next time you pay bills, let the first check you write be to your church or another ministry that spreads God’s kingdom. Show Him that you trust Him to meet your practical needs and that you want to seek His kingdom first. This intentional act will change your perspective on finances and give Him new opportunities to work in your life.

The only treasure that is 100% trustworthy is found in God’s kingdom. Our pursuit of Jesus enables us to align our priorities with His in ways that are both lofty and practical. It opens doors for Him to use our time and finances for greater impact and lets us discover the value of true treasure found only in Him.

Santorini will have to wait for now. In the meantime, I can experience the beauty of God’s kingdom every day right where I am.

Click on the link and make Lauren Daigle’s song “First” your prayer today.

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Four Keys to Forgiveness – Sermon on the Mount Part 6


Pulling up to the curb, the bus parked in front of an odd looking building. I was tired and unenthused about yet another stop on a 10-day tour of England. All of the churches and historic sites were starting to blend together as we climbed on and off the bus under the cold, grey skies. I was in college participating in a study abroad program and although I was enjoying the trip, jet lag and being constantly on the move were starting to wear on me. I was tempted to skip this stop and just stay on the bus. Thankfully, I didn’t.

Stepping onto the sidewalk, I was confused by the building that stood before me. One half looked like a 1950’s era cinderblock church, the other half was the shell of a 14th century gothic cathedral. The two didn’t match at all and the cynical part of me assumed someone with poor taste had designed this strange site.

An enthusiastic tour guide welcomed our group of forty students and ushered us inside the newer half of Coventry Cathedral. From the moment he began to speak, I knew this was not going to be another typical tour. The church was filled with objects and symbols with meaningful stories behind them.  Everything in the building had been designed to point visitors to different truths about God, His Word and what it meant to be an authentic follower of Christ.

I could have lingered in that massive building all afternoon contemplating the significance of each symbolic object and space. Still reveling in its beauty, I was not prepared for the most profound part of the tour as the guide led us out of the modern building and into the old gothic cathedral. Although the exterior walls were intact, German bombs had obliterated the roof and interior during World War II.

The tour guide explained that shortly after it was destroyed, the cathedral stonemason discovered that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins and eventually they were placed on the altar amidst the rubble. The words “Father Forgive” were later inscribed on the wall behind the cross.

Seeing the blackened cross and the words behind it brought a lump to my throat. The people of Coventry Cathedral had grasped the magnitude of God’s love when He allowed His son to die on the cross so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. They knew their only option was to offer forgiveness to the very enemies who had destroyed their cathedral.

Their choice to forgive perfectly exemplifies Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, NIV)

There are some powerful lessons we can learn from the example set by Coventry Cathedral.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.

The morning after the cathedral was bombed on November 14, 1940, the decision was made to rebuild a new cathedral that would lead the people of Coventry away from bitterness and hatred. My guess is that if they had waited until they “felt” like forgiving the Germans, the church would still be in ruins (spiritually and physically).

Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time event.

It took over a decade for the new cathedral to be built. The rebuilding process enabled the people to examine their hearts and create a new building that was a physical manifestation of God’s grace and forgiveness. The new cathedral was built at a perpendicular angle to the original one so that the two buildings form the shape of a cross when viewed from above.

Forgiveness allows God to work in you and others.

The bombing of the cathedral ultimately led the congregation to begin a ministry of peace and reconciliation that continues to provide spiritual and practical support in areas of conflict throughout the world. Forgiving their enemies brought emotional and spiritual healing that freed them to help others on their own journeys of forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology first.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral and to use it as a symbol of God’s forgiveness was made while the war with the Germans raged on. The people of Coventry didn’t wait in defiant pride until restitution was paid. They didn’t demand to have the atrocity committed against them be rectified before they forgave. They chose to forgive and they trusted God to bring justice in His perfect timing.

While Coventry Cathedral provides tangible examples about the keys to forgiveness, the four points I’ve listed come from my personal experiences. I know first hand how hard it is and have spent much time wrestling with God and His Word as I’ve worked through my pain in the process of forgiving others. If forgiveness were easy, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to die on the cross to make it possible. Because He did that, we have no choice but to follow His example. How could we ever withhold from others the forgiveness that God so freely gives to us?

Click on the link to hear further wisdom on this topic with Matthew West’s song “Forgiveness” and to access other helpful resources.

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Yes, No, Maybe So- Sermon on the Mount Part 5


The invitation has been sitting in my e-mail inbox for a few weeks now. Every time I see it there, it reminds me I haven’t given an answer. Ironically, I haven’t even responded with a “maybe,” although it’s an option the designers of the website include with every invitation.

Reading Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about saying “yes” and “no” has gotten me thinking about our commitment-phobic, over-scheduled culture. He says:

 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37, NIV)

Jesus’ teaching in this passage is not to deter us from saying the Pledge of Allegiance or taking an oath in court. His point is if you are a person of integrity, then your word is your bond. As a follower of Jesus, any oath or vow you make should be considered redundant because you’ll keep your word anyway.

It seems people struggle to give clear answers to simple questions in today’s culture. Finding individuals who give a definitive “yes” or “no” is refreshing, but unusual. I think it’s because we have too many demands on our time and we procrastinate in making decisions (my lack of response to the invitation mentioned earlier is a case in point).

People in my life who keep their word are rare gems. When I started writing my blog three years ago, I asked a godly woman to be part of my prayer team. After the first year, she told me she needed to step away from my team to focus on a leadership position in another ministry. I was impressed with her integrity and touched by how seriously she had taken her commitment to pray for me. Later, when her other responsibility ended, she re-joined my team and has continued to cover me in prayer faithfully ever since. That is someone who understands the value of letting a “yes” be “yes” and a “no” be “no.”

Her example is a good reminder to think carefully before we say “yes” or “no.” It’s important to be sure we can follow through or to acknowledge that we are unable to do what is being asked of us. But whatever we do, we shouldn’t leave someone hanging with no response at all.

Many of us habitually avoid or put off giving answers to requests or invitations. When we do this, we unintentionally communicate that the other person doesn’t matter enough to merit a response. This often leads to feelings of hurt or frustration from the one who is awaiting your answer.  When it happens over and over again, it creates bitter feelings and strained relationships. Ultimately, it’s just plain unloving and not exemplifying the life of integrity that should characterize a follower of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount emphasizes that all people matter to God, one way to show this is by giving a clear “yes” or “no” answer.

Another related issue is the problem of over-committing. Some Christians assume every request made of them must be answered with a “yes” and feel compelled to meet every need they see. However, saying “yes” when you can’t follow through on a commitment does a lot more harm than being honest and saying “no.” There is nothing worse than working alongside someone who doesn’t have time to be serving or who is over-committed, stressed out or not really excited about what they’re doing.

Scripture tells us “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV) This means we need to seek His wisdom and prayerfully determine which specific things He’s calling us to do or not do. A good practice before saying “yes” to something new is to think about how the other commitments you already have will be affected. If you have the time and desire to say “yes,” you also need to consider how it will impact the rest of your life. Our families often bear the brunt of too many “yes” answers to others.

Sometimes we’re tempted to say “yes” to several events happening at the same time and hope to make an appearance at each one for a little while. This can be incredibly unloving when the people who have invited you realize they’ve been squeezed in among many obligations. Doing this makes them feel like they’re part of a checklist rather than people you truly value and want to spend time with.

If you’re in the habit of being unresponsive or giving unclear answers to others, can I encourage you to consider things from their perspective? Do you think they’re feeling respected and appreciated by you? Are they sensing the love of Jesus flowing from you? Our actions usually speak more loudly than our words. This includes our failure to act.

If you’re frequently saying “yes” and then bailing out, maybe it’s time to try a new tactic. Next time an opportunity or invitation comes your way, be sure to pray first and evaluate whether you have the time and inclination to give it your all. Then, be confident in delivering a clear “yes” or “no” answer.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to circle back to that invitation waiting in my inbox. My response is long overdue.


Lost Tempers, Lost Keys and Crumpled Creations: Sermon on the Mount Part 4


Pushing the re-dial button on my cell phone for the tenth time, I listened to the familiar sound of the voicemail greeting, yet again. I paced the sidelines as my frustration mounted toward the person I was trying to reach. She’d left me a message only seconds earlier trying to find out the location of my son’s soccer game, but now she wasn’t answering my return calls. By the time we finally made contact, it was nearly half-time and my frustration had boiled over into full-blown anger.

It turns out that unbeknownst to her, the phone had been on silent mode the whole time. When she realized her mistake and confessed it, I had no grace to offer. Harsh words flew out of my mouth without restraint. Although my anger felt justified, I realized at once that unleashing it had been the wrong choice. Even the sincerest apology couldn’t erase the hurtful words I’d spewed.

As the game ended, I dug in my purse for my car keys and discovered they were nowhere to be found. Trying to re-trace my steps, my husband and I spent an hour combing the soccer fields, the parking lot and the trail I’d hiked during pre-game warm ups. As we looked, I silently berated myself in anger, wondering how I could have been so stupid and irresponsible.  Throughout our search, my mind was filled with hurtful words to describe myself. After over an hour of looking, we gave up and headed home using a set of spare keys.

Later that evening, my family stood at a church service, participating in the opening set of worship songs before leading the elementary kids off to class. As the music played and the lyrics appeared on screen, my throat suddenly constricted and shame washed over me. How could I sing about God’s grace and love when only a few hours earlier I’d chosen to withhold them? My eyes welled up as I thought about how I’d let my anger lead me into sin.  I began to see that the harshness of my thoughts and words had done a great deal of damage.

At the pastor’s cue, my family headed out of the church service corralling a pack of enthusiastic elementary kids to a classroom nearby. As we led them through a lesson, small groups, crafts and games, God continued to work in my heart, gently opening my eyes to the ways my anger earlier that day had affected Him too.

An hour later, class ended and as parents arrived to retrieve their kids, one little girl searched the room frantically looking for a picture she’d made during class.  She wanted to show her father, but it had gone missing. It was clear she wasn’t going to leave without it, so we scoured the room until we finally found it crumpled in a ball and sitting under a chair. I smoothed out the paper before handing it to her with a reassuring smile. At first she was distressed that her beautiful creation had been so mistreated, but as soon as it was in her hands, she beamed with pride and presented it to her father.  He was quick to point out the specific qualities that made the picture special and a smile lit up her sweet face.

To anyone else, it was a colorful mess of felt tip markings and fingerprints, but to her father and her, it was precious.

It wasn’t until a few hours later that the events of the day came into focus for me. My angry thoughts and words toward myself and another person were the equivalent of taking that little girl’s picture and crumpling it up in front of her. Of course, I would never do something so cruel and hurtful, yet that is what I did to God.  That’s why I’d had a hard time singing worship songs–my anger earlier in the day had shown a blatant disregard for His most valued creations: people. This realization gave me a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21-24, NIV)

Our thoughts and our words matter to God. They affect how we view and treat others, as well as how we view and treat ourselves. The more we let anger simmer in our minds, the more it taints our perspectives. And in the process, we hurt the God who loved us enough to sacrifice His son for us.

Jesus’ half-brother, James, expands on this when he explains:

 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10, NIV)

Being angry isn’t a sin, but it quickly leads to sin when not surrendered to God. Anger tears the fabric that weaves relationships together, and it injures the heart of the One who created each of us. We are precious in His eyes and He wants us to view one another in the same way.

The next time I’m tempted to lash out in anger at myself or someone else, I’ll think about how that little girl lovingly smoothed out her wrinkled picture and I’ll remember just how precious we are to God.  Can I encourage you to do the same?

Click on the link to hear the song that was too hard for me to sing after my day of anger: “This is Amazing Grace” by Phil Wickham. After listening, thank God that His grace is sufficient to cover over even our ugliest sins. (And while you’re praying, I’d be grateful if you asked for my keys to be found and returned too!)

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