Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Live Like You Believe It- What Love Is Week 1

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Reading through the opening chapter of First John makes my mind dart from one topic to the next. I sense John’s urgency as he writes, his passion for his readers to embrace a relationship with Jesus and to let their lives reflect the difference knowing Him makes. John’s approach is direct not because he is harsh, but because he cares too much to risk having someone miss the point.

He starts by emphasizing that he knew Jesus personally saying, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3 NIV)

The word “fellowship” comes from the Greek word “koinonia.” It includes both a spiritual and a practical component. Those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection are united in the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father. Put simply, they have a personal relationship with God. And this means they also have a relationship with others who are connected with God. “Perhaps the clearest theological use of koinonia [fellowship] is in 1 John 1:3-6, where we read that when we walk in the light truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ and that this relation of grace has profound implications for daily living. For if we say that we have fellowship with God and walk in darkness, we lie! Here the basic meaning of ‘fellowship’ is a real and practical sharing in eternal life with the Father and the Son.” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

In essence, when we are walking closely with God, we connect easily with others who are doing the same, whether we’ve known them for years or are meeting them for the first time. I had the privilege of seeing this dynamic recently as I gathered with a group of women for a special lunch. All of us were believers, but some had never met.   Despite this, the talk around the table was rich and deep. An outside observer would have thought we’d all been close friends for years. The reason for this was our common love for and relationship with Jesus. Through many encounters like this one, I’ve learned it doesn’t take long for the Holy Spirit living in me to recognize himself in someone else I meet.   True fellowship flows naturally when people connected with God engage with one another.

Conversely, we don’t experience deep fellowship with people who have a façade of faith, but no substance behind it. John describes them as people who “claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness” (1 John 1:6a, NIV). John doesn’t mince words– he says people doing this “Do not live out the truth.” (1 John 1:6b, NIV) This reminds me of the years I spent volunteering with the high school group at my church. I could always tell how the girls in my small group were doing spiritually by how closely they wanted to connect with me. Those who rode the fence between faith and worldliness often remained at a distance from me, no matter how much I lovingly pursued them. They were lying to themselves, believing they could live by worldly and godly standards simultaneously. They wanted the warmth and reassurance of the light, but were lured by the lies lurking in the darkness. As long as they remained divided, true fellowship couldn’t happen.

John continues his teaching in the next section by explaining the importance of being honest about our sins. Again, not mincing words he says, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, NIV) As our world continues to eliminate moral standards, the line between right and wrong is slowly being erased. Our culture has moved from excusing sin to embracing it and calling it good.  When we determine our own versions of right and wrong, then we can convince ourselves that there is no such thing as sin. And if sin no longer exists, nothing is off-limits. Ultimately, this mentality eliminates the need for Jesus, the one who gave his life to forgive our sins.

For Christians, it is vitally important to recognize sin in our lives and to confess it. This means we need to study God’s Word consistently so that we can know the standards he calls us to maintain. We do this not because we want to follow a list of rules, but because we love God and don’t want anything to impede our fellowship with him or with others. Admitting our sins is an act of humility that honors God and reminds us how much we need him. When we ask for forgiveness it reminds us that we’re not perfect and that we need to show God’s grace to others. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)  Doing this deepens fellowship with God and with other believers.

I’d sum up John’s teaching in this passage by saying that if we claim to know Jesus and to walk in the light, it will be evident in our lives. We’ll have meaningful relationships with fellow believers and we’ll have a deep love for God and the truth of His Word. We will admit that we are sinners, humbly confess sin and seek forgiveness regularly. Doing these things enables us to live with authenticity and to invite others to do the same.

Jeremy Camp’s song “Christ in Me” describes the tension between getting stuck in the dark of worldliness versus embracing the light of Christ. Click on the link and make it your prayer as you listen.

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Oaks of Righteousness- Women of the Word Part 9

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For thirty-three years Jesus walked the earth as a sinless man who was the living Word of God. The women in his family tree, however, were anything but perfect. From their stories, we see the roots of our own struggles and recognize that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The lives of Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary reveal messy and complicated circumstances. And yet, through the women in Jesus’ family tree, we see God’s redemptive hand at work. With each new branch, he prepared the way for Jesus, the Messiah who would ultimately die on a cross and rise from death to graft all people into his family tree.

Despite their flaws, these women were like the nearly indestructible oak tree: symbols of strength and endurance that survived even the most difficult circumstances. Most experienced the pain of a broken heart at least once in their stories—whether it was Sarah and Rebekah who longed for children that wouldn’t come, Leah and Tamar who were unloved by their husbands or Bathsheba who had one loss layered on top of another. Some like Rahab and Ruth had been captives to false religions while others like Eve fell captive to sin. A few, like Ruth and Mary, were poor. These women mourned over lost husbands, children, homelands and dreams. And yet, from them, the bloodline of the Messiah passed from one generation to the next. Reading a familiar passage written by the prophet Isaiah makes me think of them:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Despite their hardships, their pain, their poor choices and ugly circumstances, the women in Jesus’ family line ultimately displayed God’s splendor. They played key roles in fulfilling his covenant promise to Abraham, who was blessed to be a blessing to the entire world. (See Genesis 12:2-3)

Generations after Isaiah made his prophecy, that blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Messiah that had been foretold since the creation of the world. (See Genesis 3:14-15) Jesus astonished everyone in his hometown synagogue by standing up and reading this same passage from Isaiah and boldly proclaiming that it was fulfilled in Him:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21, NIV)

Jesus shocked the crowd with this statement just as he was beginning his earthly ministry. After teaching, healing and making disciples for three subsequent years, he was crucified despite committing no crime.   After Jesus resurrected from death and ascended into heaven, his disciples continued to proclaim the good news about him. And despite intense persecution and hardship, their numbers continued to multiply. Each time something threatened to wipe out the burgeoning church, it only grew stronger and spread further.

The disciples’ tenacity and continued multiplication reminds me of an unusual type of oak that grows in the Jurupa Valley in Southern California. Known as the Palmer’s Oak, it looks like an unimpressive little thigh-high shrub. From a distance, it appears to be a grouping of small trees spread out in a wide oval, but it is actually one tree that shares an ever-expanding root system. Periodically, a fire will rage across the hill where it lives, reducing it to ashes. The pressure placed on the roots by the fire causes the normally slow-growing tree to send up new sprouts. With each fire, the sprouts spread further and further.

It sounds a lot like the disciples who endured incredible hardships in order to spread their faith in Jesus. With each persecution they faced, they traveled to farther flung destinations, expanding their roots as they continued to share the gospel and watch their numbers grow. That endurance is what allowed the good news of Jesus to spread to different regions and to be passed through the generations, ultimately making it possible for us to know Jesus today.

And to think, it all started with those flawed women and their messy, complicated lives. God still brings beauty from ashes today. We have the privilege of being counted among those who display God’s splendor just like the oaks of righteousness Isaiah described so long ago.

The image of the tree has been a significant part of the Women of the Word study, both because of the family tree of Jesus and because of the oaks of righteousness. I couldn’t pass up including a song that weaves together these images and themes with a stunning visual representation. Click on the link and enjoy “Worn” by Tenth Avenue North.

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Godly Sorrow- Women of the Word Part 8

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It was a brisk fall evening when the sport utility vehicle sped down our street, careened around an unexpected curve, lost control and mowed down our neighbors’ mailbox. Despite flattening the sturdy wooden post, it was going fast enough to plow through our front hedge and hit our parked SUV, spinning it backwards before slamming it into the corner of our house. The speeding car finally came to a stop on our front lawn. Despite the sturdiness of the vehicle, its front end was a crumpled mass of metal. The sixteen-year-old driver emerged from the mangled car without a scratch. He had been racing his buddies down our street and misjudged the turn in the dark.

As the teenage boys sat on the curb waiting for the driver’s parents and the police, they discussed the incident with great enthusiasm, seeming to revel in the excitement of having totaled not one, but two, eight passenger vehicles. Although this incident happened many years ago, I’ll never forget the behavior of the driver and his friends. At the time of the accident, my own boys were only six and four. I can remember making them study the smashed cars carefully so that they’d remember it when they were old enough to drive (one of them now is).

A few minutes after the accident, the driver’s father arrived on the scene. We exchanged insurance information and he muttered, “I’m sorry this happened.” He never had his son look us in the eye and apologize. The boy didn’t return the next day to help clean up the mess in our yard or to replace our neighbor’s mailbox. I’m not sure if he learned any valuable lessons from that incident, but I know my boys did.

I was reminded of that accident this week as I studied the concept of repentance and godly sorrow. These aren’t very popular topics in today’s culture. It seems we’ve become a society averse to accepting responsibility for our mistakes, let alone labeling them as sin and seeking forgiveness. We shift blame whenever possible. Or even worse, we try to rationalize why the wrong things we’re doing are actually justified.  Many in our culture want to excuse or even condone sinful behavior altogether.

No one likes to admit they’re wrong, but for those who call themselves followers of Jesus, this needs to be something we do regularly. When we humble ourselves, admit our sins and seek God’s forgiveness, He offers it freely. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV) Here’s the catch: we can’t be forgiven if we don’t acknowledge our sin.

King David provides a great example of one who tried to avoid responsibility for his sins.  You might remember when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, got her pregnant and then tried to avoid the the truth by ensuring her husband would be killed in battle (see 1 Samuel 11 & 12 for the story). When the prophet Nathan confronted him, he finally admitted his sin and sought forgiveness, prompting him to write Psalm 51.

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17, NIV)

David finally accepted responsibility for his actions and admitted he was broken by his sin. He acknowledged that what he had done was wrong. He approached God with humility and sorrow over his grievous behavior. And God forgave him.

We see a similar theme of the “contrite heart” in the apostle Paul’s writing:

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV)

Godly sorrow involves repenting–literally and figuratively turning away from our sins and going a different direction.   It is sorrow over the wickedness of our sins. It expresses grief, understanding the hurt we cause our heavenly Father when we engage in sin. Coming to God with a contrite heart enables us to experience the tremendous grace and forgiveness He offers us through the blood of Jesus.

Conversely, worldly sorrow is self-centered. It is focused on the painful consequences of sin, not on the offense it is to God.   It is sorry the situation happened, but accepts no blame and has no intention of changing. (Sounds like my opening story, doesn’t it?) Worldly sorrow is an apology with words, but with no heart behind it.

It’s easy to get swept up in the attitude of our culture—to want to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing or to explain it away. We receive this message subtly, but constantly.  If we follow Jesus, we must be on our guards lest we get lured into this way of thinking.

When was the last time you came before God with a contrite heart, deeply troubled by the hurt you’d caused Him through your sin? It’s never too late to get down on your knees and humbly ask for forgiveness. God has so much more to offer us than the world does. The first step to discovering that is our humble repentance.

Casting Crowns wrote a song based on David’s words in Psalm 103 that describe how God sees our sins once we confess them. Click on the link and be encouraged by “East to West.”
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Foreigners to Faith- Women of the Word Part 7

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Sitting on the edge of the couch, she perched the large Bible on her knees. She’d broken the seal on the shrink-wrap moments earlier and was examining the sturdy leather cover and the gold-edged pages. Looking up with a sheepish grin she explained, “Buying this was one of the most awkward things I’ve ever done. I felt like an Eskimo shopping at a bikini store.” The group laughed as she continued, “No, seriously. I was sure someone in the Christian bookstore was going to say I had no business buying this Bible and that I didn’t really belong there.”

It was the first week of a new Bible study I’d started with a friend. Ten women sat clutching cups of coffee as they nestled into the couch and introduced themselves. Some were exploring faith for the first time, others had grown up in the church but had never really understood the Bible. All of them agreed to join my friend and I as we led them on a twelve-week “experiment” to explore the Bible together and discuss questions about the Christian faith. They were earnest seekers and most of them had one thing in common: they felt like strangers and outsiders to the world of faith.

Our twelve weeks of study flew by and they all agreed things were just starting to make sense. They were unanimous in their desire to continue. When the first year came to an end, they clamored for more, returning the next fall eager to continue learning and growing. As time passed, they moved from being strangers to God and His Word to being earnest believers in the midst of life transformation. Most had never realized just how inclusive God is and how much He wants authentic relationships with the people He lovingly created.  They were excited to share their newfound knowledge and wanted to expand our group to include other seekers.

I thought about this precious group of women with a smile as I read the story of Ruth recently. Scripture tells us she, too, began as a foreigner–an outsider who wanted to belong. Her faith in God and devotion to her Jewish mother-in-law prompted her to leave her homeland and travel to Bethlehem after the death of their husbands. Forsaking her family and culture, Ruth told Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16b, NIV) We don’t know what drew her to the God of the Israelites, but her devotion was sincere and she remained true to her word.

Despite her dedication to her mother-in-law and God, the Jews probably didn’t welcome Ruth warmly when she arrived in Bethlehem. After years of being admonished to remain “set apart,” they could have been wary about accepting Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law into their community. The people had been taught not to intermarry with foreigners to prevent tainting their faith with pagan depravity and idol worship. However, this viewpoint may have caused them to view outsiders with condescension, suspicion or fear. Although she had accepted the God of Israel, Ruth’s status as a foreigner kept her on the fringes of the community.

In spite of her marginalized position, Ruth had to mix with others to provide for Naomi and herself. With few prospects for employment, she did the only thing a reputable, poor, widow could do: she gleaned in the fields. Every day she walked behind hired hands to collect leftover grain. It was exhausting and potentially dangerous work for a lone woman with no protector, but it was the only option she had if she wanted to eat.

Through her hard work, humble spirit and dedication to Naomi, Ruth began to gain favor with Boaz, the owner of the fields where she worked. He said, “You left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:11b-12, NIV)

The praise Boaz gave to Ruth was not based on her bloodline or her country of origin, but upon her heart and her character. This was the first step toward a new chapter in her life story. Eventually she went from being an outsider to marrying Boaz and being welcomed into the community. She was grafted into the most esteemed family tree among the Israelites. It grew from Abraham and would be in full bloom with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

Boaz saw Ruth’s heart because God saw her heart. Scripture confirms: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b, NIV)

Perhaps their story could inspire us to consider the “foreigners to faith” in our midst every day. There are people all around us on the fringe looking for a place to belong and be loved. Like Ruth, they might be willing to risk venturing onto “foreign soil” to discover God and His Word. But they need observant and sensitive people like Boaz to notice. Are we praying, asking God to open our eyes and lead us to them?

“Through him we received both the generous gift of his life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus.” (Romans 1:5, The Message)

Maybe you already know how exciting it is to lead someone to the hope found in Jesus. Or maybe you’ve never considered how you could be used for God’s redemptive work in the life of a “foreigner to faith.” Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear them share their story and to know you were part of it? Click on the link and imagine the impact God could make through you as you listen to “My Story” by Big Daddy Weave.

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Strangers Here- Women of the Word Part 6

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How did Rahab feel standing on the plains of Canaan looking at the charred remains of Jericho? Her home had been reduced to rubble and all of her friends and neighbors were now dead. They’d trusted the thick walls of stone to protect them rather than submitting to the living God that led the Israelites. For six days the people of Jericho watched with a mix of fear and curiosity as the Israelites marched around the city’s perimeter carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They’d heard the stories about this mighty God, but Rahab alone had chosen to believe and follow Him.

Trusting the God of the Israelites had made Rahab a stranger in her own city. But when the walls came down on the seventh day of the Israelites’ marching, she faced a new challenge as a stranger in their camp. From an earthly perspective, she was an outsider in both places. In Jericho her faith in God kept her apart. With the Israelites, her status as a foreigner and a prostitute probably didn’t win her many friends.

The Bible doesn’t tell us the story of how Rahab integrated into their community. Beyond what’s recorded in Joshua, chapters 2 and 6, we have little information about her.  We don’t know how she and Salmon met or when they decided to marry. In fact, it’s not until we read the New Testament that we learn they had a child. Matthew 1:5 tells us that Salmon and Rahab were the parents of Boaz and the great great grandparents of King David. The genealogy continues through the centuries until it ends triumphantly at Jesus, the Messiah.

Still, Rahab had no idea she would end up in the family line of a great king and the Savior of the world. So why did she risk it all? Why did she abandon the people of her city? Why was she willing to accept its destruction? Why did she want to live among the ones who had obliterated all that she knew and loved?

The answer is simple, really. Rahab’s eyes weren’t on her earthly surroundings–they were on God. She told the Israelite spies: “The Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:11b, NIV) She knew it was futile to fight against Him or to try and preserve her city and way of life. She held those things lightly in comparison with knowing and following the living God.

Long before the words of the New Testament were inspired, she exemplified the call for all believers to live as strangers in the world. We are simply travelers passing through this life on our way to something better. The apostle Peter urges believers saying: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” (1 Peter 1:13-15, NIV 1984 edition)

Peter reminds us to fix our eyes on Jesus and to be holy or “set apart.” Living this way means not placing our hope in worldly things like financial security, physical health, or even significant relationships and meaningful endeavors. The good things we experience in this life are blessings from God, but not our ultimate hope. Followers of Jesus know these things lack lasting value compared to the hope we have through Him. We hold them loosely, knowing they are only a small taste of the true joy, security and peace that await us.

Peter continues writing in this passage: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:17-19, NIV 1984 edition)

Rahab lived as a stranger in reverent fear. She saw God’s power and let her awe of Him guide her choices. She knew what He had to offer was better than anything else. Her example inspires and humbles me. And it makes me wonder. Am I living a life set apart for God? Do I see myself as a stranger here? Do I hold loosely to worldly comforts and pleasures, or do I put my hope and security in them? Am I attaching myself too tightly to material possessions? Am I investing my time in things that are eternal or wasting it on frivolous activities with no lasting value? Am I like the people of Jericho, fortifying my earthly protections when I should be surrendering to the One True God?

Rahab became a stranger in her city when she chose to accept a God no one else acknowledged. And she was an outsider in the Israelite camp because she was a Canaanite. But she was never a stranger to God. He knew her, loved her and had a plan for her. He redeemed her life and then placed her in a family line that would ultimately produce the Redeemer of the whole world.

It couldn’t have been easy for Rahab. There were probably days when living for God meant being lonely.  Maybe she thought she would never belong anywhere. I think we can relate with her difficulties. There are days when it’s hard to be set apart. It doesn’t always feel good to live as a stranger in our world. It can be painful, lonely and uncomfortable. But God promises this is all temporary—which is why our hope is in Him, both for this life and the one to come.

Maybe you recognize the symbol in the photo at the top of this post. The “N-O-T-W” on my family’s bulletin board is a simple reminder that we are “Not of This World” –we were made for something more. The song “Strangers Here” by Tenth Avenue North also offers a great perspective on the joys and challenges of living set apart. Click on the link below and be encouraged:

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