Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


1 Comment

Communicating Your Gratitude

Brandishing an unspent gift card, my son looked at me with a gleam in his eye. “Can I bring this to buy a Lego set when we go on errands today?”

Curious, I asked, “Where did you get that card?”

“Four months ago, for my birthday!” He answered before adding, “Don’t worry, Mom, I already wrote a thank you note for it a long time ago.”

If there is one thing my boys know about me, it’s that I am adamant about showing gratitude—whether it is for a gift we’ve received, an act of kindness someone has done for us, or time spent on our behalf. They learned long ago that we would not leave a sports practice or a game until they had shaken hands with the coach and said “thank you.” Although it’s human nature to focus only on what we’ve received, we try to help our kids remember the giver too.

Expressing gratitude is the best way to combat the entitlement so prevalent in our culture today. It reminds us that the many blessings we have are not rights, but privileges. A grateful heart enables us to give and receive God’s grace more freely because we recognize it is a gift we don’t deserve. Learning to be thankful in all circumstances also helps us to keep our eyes on God, no matter what we are facing. Gratitude prevents bitterness and negativity from taking up residence in our minds. Maybe that’s what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote:

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV)

The Thanksgiving season provides an annual opportunity to recognize our many blessings instead of just taking them for granted. But is just feeling thankful enough? What about acknowledging those who deserve our thanks, starting with God?

“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:16-17, NIV)

I would be bothered if my boys received a gift in the mail, opened it and then held it up and said “I’m thankful for this,” but never bothered to tell the person who sent it. The giver would have no idea that they appreciated what they received. And yet, there are many things we regularly enjoy or appreciate without taking time to express gratitude.

Feeling thankful should prompt us to communicate how we feel. There are little things we take for granted every day that repeat so frequently we may forget we’re thankful for them. In that spirit, I’d like to share a few of the things that are part of daily life that I’m thankful for this year:

-The spiritual gifts God has given me to use for the sake of others. I have discovered more joy in the past three years than I’ve ever experienced before as I’ve had new opportunities to share the gifts of encouragement, teaching and shepherding. These gifts would be worthless if I kept them to myself, but are invaluable and infinite when shared with others.

-My husband’s constant support and encouragement. I couldn’t write, speak, teach or pour into others to the extent that I do if my husband wasn’t providing for our family and supporting me emotionally and spiritually. We are a team, always looking for ways to further God’s kingdom together and individually. Never once has he questioned the amount of time I spend writing, studying or connecting with people. He cheers me on every step of the way and partners with me whenever the opportunity arises.

-My teenage boys who still talk to me and spend time with my husband and me. They delight, amaze and amuse me almost daily with their antics, their stories and their insightful observations. I thank God for the relationships we have and for His obvious presence in our household.

So how about you? Can you make some time this week to identify a few things in your daily life that make you thankful? Start by telling God. Then, tell the people closest to you that you are most likely to take for granted.

For inspiration, click on the link to enjoy Chris Tomlin’s song of praise, “Good, Good Father.” It’s a great reminder of the most basic truths about God that we sometimes take for granted. Happy Thanksgiving!

Continue reading

Advertisements


2 Comments

Fortifying Your Foundation- Sermon on the Mount Part 10

IMG_3686 copy

Two houses built on contrasting foundations illustrate Jesus’ final point in the Sermon on the Mount. They are metaphors for two kinds of lives: one built on the solid foundation of a relationship with Jesus, the other built on the shifting sands of the world. When the storms of life overwhelm us, He shows us that trusting Him is the only way to remain rock solid.

Acting on Jesus’ words instead of trying to muddle through on our own worldly wisdom fortifies our foundations. God has shown me the truth of this time and time again. Ironically, one of the most significant opportunities involved the actual house where I live and occurred from 2010 to 2012. To share this story, I’ve chosen excerpts from the first and last chapters of a book manuscript I wrote. As you read, think about the storms in your life, both past and present, and what they reveal about your foundation.

Paragraphs below are excerpted from my unpublished book manuscript entitled: From Our Mess to God’s Best: Remodeling a Heart and a Home.

Ripping out the filthy carpet felt liberating.   Matted and stained from heavy use and construction dust, it barely resembled the pristine cream color it had once been when we’d bought the house almost sixteen years earlier. I longed to be rid of it, but also wondered what we’d find underneath. What I discovered was not the 1950’s hardwood floors I’d expected to see in our little one-story house. Instead, it was a patchwork of particleboard and tattered wood planks sloppily covered with white paint by a previous owner to seal in strong odors. This is hideous, I thought.

As I worked, I mulled over the painful transformation occurring within me. God must have a sense of humor–this floor reminds me of myself. How could I have known a remodel would strip away all of my façades and show the ugliest parts of my character? Just when I thought I was spiritually mature and had life figured out, God keeps revealing that I’m not the person I thought I was.

Christmas music played over the soft hum of our new furnace, contrasting the cold, grey day outside our front window. Tearing out the living room carpet wasn’t the activity I’d planned to do with my boys over Christmas vacation, but it had to be done. It felt good to have work progress after using this one room for making meals, eating, doing homework, watching TV, playing and being together. With our kitchen and family room under construction, it had been our only living space for seven months. The physical chaos of living in the house while it was remodeled had been nothing compared to the emotional upheaval of working with our unreliable contractor, who would disappear for days at a time leaving us wondering if he was ever coming back.

 Over the months, the process of remodeling our tiny home had been filled with revealing moments like this one. Some of them had been structural, as we’d watched our kitchen and family room being torn out–others had been spiritual as God refined us using unexpected challenges.   We’d anticipated the financial cost of the project and the inconvenience it would cause, but had failed to recognize the emotional and spiritual toll it would take on us.

The thought of having our faith stretched by our remodel hadn’t occurred to my husband or me. We’d learned to trust God through a number of hardships and had favorite Bible verses that comforted us through job transitions, difficult relationships, anxiety, depression and the deaths of family members. We believed God used hardships for good and had seen evidence of it in our lives.

However, we also prided ourselves in our self-sufficiency and our ability to problem-solve smaller issues on our own. Good planning and common sense had kept daily life orderly for almost seventeen years of marriage. We’d never considered that the Lord had things to teach us through the problems that arose from living in a privileged, industrialized society. God was using a mess of our own making to transform us from the inside out, whether we wanted Him to or not.

 The process of our remodel and the many other challenging events we endured over the course of it tested our faith and stretched us almost to the breaking point. By God’s grace, we learned to call on His name through these trials.   We learned to wait and watch for His answers in His timing. We let Him do His refining work in us, as painful as it was.

Through that process, God revealed many ugly impurities in me that needed to be surrendered to Him. First and foremost was my constant need to be in control. I operated for many years under the assumption that if I tried hard enough, played by the rules and planned ahead, I could keep life clicking along according to my perfect plans. God showed me that any control I have is merely an illusion. Any aspect of my carefully orchestrated life could change at a moment’s notice. I can make plans but must give God room to alter them according to His will.

God’s grace has become much more profound to me. Understanding that He sent His son for my sake, that He gives me the free gift of eternal life is more profound to me than ever before. What I didn’t grasp previously was the daily grace He shows me every time I sin. He loves me and thinks the best of me, even when I’m at my worst. I need to offer this same grace to others instead of filling in the blanks with negative assumptions about them. When I’m tempted to criticize, judge or condemn I need to show understanding, mercy and forgiveness instead.

As the remodeling process stripped away the old things and revealed the structure of our home, it also revealed the structure of our family. Both needed changes, but ultimately, their foundations were sound. Jesus describes the significance of a firm foundation in the gospel of Matthew. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). I am thankful that He is the foundation of our family.   He carried us through and redeemed our home and our hearts in the process, moving us for our mess to His best.

———————————————————————————————————————————————-

So, how does your foundation hold up when the storms of life blow in? What are you doing to fortify it when the going is easy? Is there one message from the Sermon on the Mount that would strengthen your foundation further? Ask God to guide you so you can make it stronger, starting today.

I can think of no better song to emphasize the importance of a firm foundation in Christ than “Cornerstone” by Hillsong. Click on the link to be inspired by this song.

Continue reading


1 Comment

The Paths We Choose- Sermon on the Mount Part 9

IMG_0952

It starts even before my feet touch the floor each morning. I lie in bed and decide if I want to get up or stay wrapped in the warmth of my fleece sheets until I hear my kids stirring. The choice to linger in bed means I’ll spend little or no time reading my Bible, praying and inviting God to prepare me for the day. My mind and heart know getting up early is the better choice, but my body lags behind, not wanting to emerge from the cozy cocoon. And that’s only the first choice in my day, which is why Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are so striking:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

The paths we choose determine the trajectory of our lives. It starts with the decision to surrender to Jesus, but applying His words requires making choices daily. Reading Jesus’ teaching throughout the sermon, I see how our daily decisions affect our walks with Him and color our perspectives. We can choose the wide path of least resistance, or we can choose the narrow path that leads to life in Him.

For example, if we really believe we are the salt and light He describes in Matthew 5:13-16, this means we are intentional about spending time with people who don’t know Jesus yet. When we enter a room, we look for ways to bless others and let God use us. Conversely, we walk towards the wide gate when we enter a group setting focused on ourselves, our insecurities or the attention we expect to receive from others. People who choose the narrow path see opportunities to be salt and light wherever they are because they invite the Holy Spirit to work through them continually.

Entering through the narrow gate also means opting out of situations that don’t honor God. There may be lonely moments when we choose not to join in a conversation riddled with gossip or an activity that celebrates sin. This is especially challenging for people pleasers and those who like to fit in with the crowd (Yes, I struggle with this too). Jesus said that “only a few find it” for a reason. It’s hard to differ from the crowd, but well worth it.

We choose the narrow path when we show love to those who have hurt us and when we pray for those who make life difficult. Every time we choose to offer grace when someone deserves judgment, we take a step closer to the narrow gate.

Walking the narrow path means surrendering our finances and our material possessions to God. It’s recognizing that everything we have is on loan from Him. We are simply His stewards and have been entrusted to make wise use of His resources. People on the narrow path decide not to put their hope in financial security because they know that God is the One who provides ultimate security.   Choosing this perspective frees us to be generous and to discover the joy of using our resources to bless others.

We choose the narrow path when we ask, seek and knock boldly and persistently knowing that our Father in heaven wants to lavish us with spiritual blessings. We walk toward the narrow gate when our prayers align with His will as we seek to further His kingdom on earth. When we choose to be positive and encouraging instead of negative and critical, we choose the narrow path.

A few times in our lives we make big choices, but every day we make small choices that impact the direction we take. Sometimes we may veer off the narrow path and experience painful consequences as one poor choice leads to another and another. But God in His infinite mercy and grace is always ready to welcome us back again. And with each choice we make to do things God’s way, we find more joy and fulfillment. Wise decisions spur us onward toward the path of life, hope, joy and peace found only in Him.

Francesca Battistelli’s song “It’s Your Life” reminds us that when our hearts beat for Jesus, it shows in our daily choices. Click on the link to hear the song.

Continue reading


Leave a comment

An Outsider’s View of Judgment and Hypocrisy- Sermon on the Mount Part 8

IMG_5562

Bobbing on the ocean’s surface, I listened as the surf instructor reminded me what to do. Together we squinted towards the horizon, scanning for the next set of waves to roll in. Standing waist-deep in the water, he prepared me for my first ride before shouting with glee, “Ok, here we go!” With a shove of the board, he pushed me in front of the swell and began shouting “Paddle! Paddle! Now stand up!” With one swift motion I pushed myself from my chest to my feet and steadied myself as the board moved towards the shore. After years of wanting to learn, it was a thrill to surf in the warm waters of Kauai that day. The long board, low waves and encouragement from a knowledgeable teacher were key ingredients for success.

As much as I loved the experience, you won’t find me riding the waves off the California coast anytime soon. There are many aspects of the sport that intimidate me, but the main one is that I’m not an “insider.” I’ve learned through listening to family members and friends that there is a whole culture and code of conduct in the world of surfing. There are unwritten rules about who surfs what beaches and who has first dibs to drop in on a wave. A newbie who doesn’t know better is sure to get a tongue-lashing from locals who don’t appreciate a “kook” messing up their surf session. (Yes, surfers have their own brand of slang and terminology too.)

For me, the act of riding the waves was hard enough. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my instructor.  Adding the unwritten rules within surf culture makes it far too intimidating to be enjoyable for me. If you’ve never surfed before, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. But if you know the thrill of riding a wave, you might think I’m crazy for letting surf etiquette keep me from continuing to learn.

What if I told you that many people outside of the church view Christian culture the same way? There are aspects of it that attract them (that whole promise of eternal life isn’t so bad, after all). But there are so many parts that intimidate them that they aren’t willing to risk engaging in Christian community.

For the past few years I’ve had a unique opportunity to spend time weekly with a group of women who considered themselves “newbies” to exploring faith. Some had a church background but lacked Biblical knowledge while others were discovering the Christian faith for the first time. Regardless of their levels of experience, two things held them back from seeking answers to their spiritual questions: hypocrisy and judgment. Most had at least one negative experience with a “churchy” person that had tainted their perspective of God and the Church as a whole.

I’ve learned a lot from this group of women as we’ve continued to meet and study the Bible together. They have given me an “outsider’s” view into the Christian sub-culture. For most of them, our group was the first time they felt safe to ask questions without fearing judgment or criticism. That is why Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are so striking to me:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5, NIV)

Judging people labels and categorizes them, diminishing their value and dismissing them based on outward flaws. Many Christians are quick to let the sinful behaviors and attitudes of non-believers deter them from engaging in relationships. It’s so much easier to judge a person for things we see on the surface than to take time to develop a friendship and to discover what influences and worldviews have impacted their perspectives.

Judging people creates a barrier that prevents opportunity for deeper relationships. It intimidates others and often causes us to appear self-righteous. Judging others also puts us in a position of superiority that stands in opposition to humility. It causes us to hide our sins and weaknesses for the sake of pride, making us hypocrites in the process.

Jesus gave us the perfect model for engaging others with love. He took time to get people in all stations in life–even the worst sinners. His harshest words were directed not towards “sinners” but toward the most self-righteous and superior people He encountered, the Pharisees.

The next time you’re tempted to make a quick judgment on someone, take a moment to stop and think first. What factors might be contributing to their actions and attitudes? Examine your heart and ask God to help you see the person as He sees them. Make time to understand them before being so quick to dismiss them.

There is a place for using discernment to hold people accountable for their sins, once we’ve made things right within ourselves and with God. However, this needs to be done in the context of a loving caring relationship, not as a snap judgment. (See James 5:19-20 for more on this.)

Let’s strive to be more like my surf instructor– coming alongside people patiently and helping them to discover the tremendous joy found through a relationship with Jesus.   When we begin with love and encouragement, they may eventually trust us enough to let us address the areas in their lives that need transformation. And there won’t be any need to judge.

Let’s never forget that God gave us grace when we deserved judgment. May the song “Call it Grace” by Unspoken remind you of this foundational truth and motivate you to share it with others.

Continue reading