Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Overcoming Ignorance and Fear About Spiritual Warfare

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Calling him careless would be an understatement. Nolan was a blonde-haired ball of energy that entered my son’s class in second grade. He was new to our neighborhood but immediately joined our daily walks to school. Most mornings, he careened toward us on a pair of oversized Rollerblades that he could barely control. Oblivious to danger, he would speed and swerve into the middle of the street, never bothering to check for cars first. More often than not, a vehicle would stop suddenly to avoid hitting him. But no matter how many times we warned him, Nolan’s cavalier attitude never seemed to change.

Contrasting this careless behavior, there was a time not long ago when I was the opposite of Nolan. I’d recently recovered from a bike accident and after a three month recovery and hours of physical therapy, I fretted about getting back on my bike. Everything felt like a potential hazard. The curb, a patch of gravel or a car parked on the side of the road all seemed menacing. Each one caused my heart to race with fear, threatening to topple me from my bike and leave me in a crumpled heap on the pavement.

These stories of carelessness and hyper-vigilance make great metaphors showing the reactions people have to the topic of spiritual warfare. For many, the subjects of Satan, evil spirits and the realms of darkness are too much to fathom. Whether they evoke fear, cynicism or discomfort, there are people who would rather ignore the whole topic. Like Nolan on his Rollerblades, they remain blissfully ignorant, assuming that what they refuse to acknowledge can’t hurt them. This posture leaves them open to attack and unaware of the spiritual authority they have through Jesus.

The other extreme are people who over-spiritualize every situation. They attribute any mishap or problem in their lives to spiritual attack. Like my paranoia when I returned to biking, they believe Satan is lurking around every corner ready to pounce and destroy them.   These people are often fearful and see God and Satan as having equal amounts of spiritual authority on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea of unseen realms and forces of evil makes some of us squirm, but learning about it is vital if we want to continue growing spiritually. The spirit world is real and pretending like it isn’t won’t make it go away.

The most important thing you need to understand about this topic is that Jesus has already won the war– Satan does not have equal power to God. Through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection, he paid the penalty for sin, thus claiming victory over Satan. (I’ll explain this further in my next blog). In Ephesians, we learn how “we can actually receive and experience tangible, long-term effects of this victory in our practical everyday living.” (The Armor of God, p. 25)  Paul’s letter explains the spiritual gifts and tools God has given Christians and urges us to use them wisely.

For the next several weeks, I look forward to discovering how to apply the things we learn about spiritual warfare to enrich our prayer lives. Using Priscilla Shirer’s Bible study, The Armor of God as a jumping off place, we will explore the different elements of spiritual armor God gives us and how we can use each one to claim victory over the enemy.

If this topic excites you, you’ll be energized and inspired by what we learn together. And if it scares or intimidates you, you’ll find practical explanations that help you see its relevance and ease your fears. It is a worthwhile topic and one followers of Jesus can’t afford to ignore.

Together we will learn to be vigilant about protecting ourselves from spiritual attack. We’ll discover how to identify and repair the chinks in our armor. And we’ll understand the authority we have through Christ, which will give us confidence in the spiritual realm. By the end, we’ll have a balanced perspective and will have navigated around blissful ignorance and fearful paranoia.

Over the next few weeks we will discover how to Put on the full armor of God, so that [we] can take [our] stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:11-12, NIV)

For further encouragement on this challenging topic, click on the link and be inspired by Chris Tomlin’s song: “Whom Shall I Fear.”

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Working Together for Truth- What Love is Week 6

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Driving through the city on a sunny afternoon, I watched from the passenger seat as familiar sites rolled by my window…ornate Victorian houses, clanging cable cars, trendy stores, chic cafés, and tiny gardens sandwiched between tall buildings. A few blocks further down, the picturesque scene transformed as we passed liquor stores, empty lots filled with trash and raggedy people sleeping in doorways. One group leaned against a graffiti-covered wall smoking cigarettes and drinking from bottles tucked inside paper bags. A few kids skipped past them down the sidewalk, their fresh faces providing a sharp contrast to the bleak surroundings.

For most people, scenes like these cause different emotions to bubble to the surface. Some turn their heads, preferring not to engage the conflicting feelings that may arise. Others look on in compassion, but feel poorly equipped to bring help and hope to kids living in a neighborhood struggling with such vast problems.

Although I’ve felt both of both of those things at different times, that day I felt hopeful. I thought of the letter sitting at home on my kitchen counter from a little boy in that neighborhood. My family had just begun sponsoring him and I pictured the Christian school that he attends that is part of a ministry bringing the light of Jesus to that spiritually impoverished neighborhood. The people serving there have willing hearts and years of experience that enable them to engage the neighborhood with love and care. And as you might expect, they often have more needs than resources to fill them.

A ministry’s need is a believer’s opportunity to act. In the book of Third John, the apostle John addresses this idea of supporting people in ministry to bring the light of God’s truth into the darkness of the world. He describes several leaders that he sent to the church to teach them.  Although these people were strangers to the the congregation, the church members welcomed and housed them.  John praises these actions saying,

“Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.” (3 John 5-8, NIV)

Though times have changed, this encouragement from John is as relevant and applicable today as it was then. God calls followers of Jesus to work together for truth in both direct and indirect ways. It takes one passionate person to obey God’s call to start a ministry, but it takes the encouragement and tangible support of a larger body of believers to implement the vision.

Maybe reading this causes you to feel overwhelmed trying grasp what part you can play in coming alongside a person or ministry to further the gospel.   There are numerous ways to partner with others bringing the message of truth to our world, whether it is sharing your financial resources, offering consistent prayer support, or volunteering your time. Will you commit to praying about where God might be calling you to provide faithful support for people serving in Jesus’ name?

The Lord often prompts us to give back to the places we’ve been blessed or calls us to intervene in situations that break our hearts. Where is he drawing your attention right now? To help you get started, you’ll see a list below of a few ministries that have touched me personally.

-Sonshine Specialized Camping Ministries: This ministry was a key part of building my faith foundation and developing my spiritual gifts in my teens and twenties. Founded in 1975, this ministry has a passion for sharing Jesus with groups of students away from the bustle of daily life on houseboats at Lake Shasta and the Sacramento Delta.   They could not exist without support from people who partner with them financially and in prayer.

For more on Sonshine Ministries, click here:http://www.sonshineministries.com/35-YEARS.html

-Cru (Formerly named Campus Crusade for Christ): The mentoring and Bible studies led by their staff members solidified my faith and equipped me for ministry in my college years and beyond. Founded in 1951 on the campus of UCLA, this ministry’s goal has been to share the gospel with college students as part of fulfilling the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Today Cru has a ministry presence in 190 countries.    Staff members are responsible for raising all of their living expenses by inviting people to partner with them.

For more on Cru click here: https://www.cru.org/about/what-we-do/milestones.1.html

-San Francisco City Impact: Founded in 1984, this ministry exists to intervene on behalf of the people in the inner city of San Francisco and is fueled by a love for Jesus and a passion for prayer. This ministry provides for the needs of the underprivileged through a school, a health and wellness clinic, a rescue mission and more.  Partnering with this ministry gives me an outlet to impact people who are in heartbreaking circumstances.

For more on SFCI, click here: http://www.sfcityimpact.com/sfciplaybook

-Samaritan’s Purse: Since 1970, Samaritan’s Purse has helped meet needs of people around the world who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ.  Partnering with this ministry gives me the opportunity to act when tragic events occur all over the world.

For more information on Samaritan’s Purse, click here: http://www.samaritanspurse.org/our-ministry/about-us/#

Some of us may feel we lack the gifts or experience to engage the types of people ministries like these serve.   However, there are simple ways we can come alongside them. We may start by investing our finances and then go deeper by committing to pray. And the more we invest, the more open we’ll become to giving our time and eventually discovering gifts we may have that that would bless them. Best of all, doing this is a perfect way to demonstrate our love for God through obedience to his word.

For further inspiration about partnering with others for the sake of the truth, click on the link and enjoy Matthew West’s song “Do Something.”

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Spiritual Gifts, Natural Abilities, Unplanned Ministries and Just Plain Obedience

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I’ll never forget the Christmas of 2001 when our first son was finally old enough to participate in holiday traditions.   On Christmas morning he jumped up and down anticipating the thrill of opening the packages peeking out from the top of his stocking. He tore into the first gift and held the prize high above his head, shouting with glee: “BIG BOY UNDERWEAR!!” Our ploy to make potty training alluring seemed to be working. He ran to his bedroom and returned moments later to model them proudly.

Underwear, again, appeared among his gifts again the next Christmas. His reaction was not quite as exuberant. Every year since then, both of our boys have continued to receive this “gift,” more for the sake of tradition than anything else. With each phase of development, their reactions have been age appropriate.  They’ve gone from glee to embarrassment to annoyance to resignation to amusement. As long as stockings are hung on the mantel, underwear will be one of the gifts inside them.

Until a few years ago, I used to view spiritual gifts in a similar light to my boys’ perspective on receiving underwear. I thought my spiritual gifts were practical and useful, but not especially exciting. The problem wasn’t with the Giver however, but with me. I had confused spiritual gifts with my natural abilities.

I am good at organizing people and events. This isn’t meant to sound proud—I say it in the same way I would tell you I have brown hair and hazel eyes. It is just a fact about me. Because of this, I served different church ministries in a variety of administrative roles such as organizing logistics for committees, events, Bible studies, students and children. I didn’t particularly derive joy from my service, however I valued the impact each of these ministries had. I knew I could add to their effectiveness by helping them run smoothly.   Since administration was a spiritual gift, I assumed I had it.

The problem was, I was serving Jesus without Jesus. My organizational skills were part of my makeup, but not something that made my heart beat faster or caused me to lean into God for strength, wisdom and guidance. I was using my natural abilities for kingdom purposes, but it wasn’t exhilarating for me because my true spiritual gifts hadn’t been activated. Since learning more, I’ve seen people who have the gift of administration and I can recognize the difference. They get as excited about organizing and overseeing things as I do about teaching and encouraging others.

In light of this, Beth Moore’s comments make perfect sense to me:

“Your ministry is the ever-accruing collection of your life works for the glory of God…You won’t be satisfied until you are living it out because God wired you with a compulsion to do it…The more we ignore His will for our works, the more discontented and out of sorts we’ll be.” (Children of the Day, p. 142)

Scripture tells us that each person who accepts Christ receives the Holy Spirit. When this happens, we receive spiritual gifts. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit…All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:4 & 11, NIV) The gifts God gives us are to be used to glorify Him and to build up our fellow believers. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10, NIV)

Discovering I had the spiritual gifts of encouragement and teaching guided me in recognizing when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to different ministry opportunities. It was freeing when I realized declining to serve somewhere opened an opportunity for a person with gifts that were better suited for it.  Instead of focusing on pleasing people, I considered how I could best please God.  I stopped trying to fill open slots where needs were greatest and started praying for God to lead me to the places He wanted to use the gifts He’d given me.

The main difference between using my natural abilities and spiritual gifts is that when I’m serving in an area where I’m gifted, it doesn’t feel like work. I don’t dread preparing a Bible study lesson or have to “gear up” to spend time encouraging someone I’m mentoring.   It can be time consuming and challenging, but it also energizes me. I’ve also learned that my gifts only serve others well when I rely on God’s strength and wisdom instead of my own.

I think this is what Paul, Timothy and Silas meant when they wrote:

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, NIV)

There can be a temptation, however, to opt out of certain things because they don’t involve the use of our specific gifts. Sometimes God has unplanned ministries in which He’s calling us to serve. It could be a neighbor in distress or that emotionally needy person who is drawn to you.   God has a way of dropping opportunities in front of us and inviting us to respond.   In those times, we need to rely on Him for an extra measure of grace. God regularly uses challenging situations to stretch our faith and our dependence upon Him. In fact, the Bible tells us He has prepared them for us:

For 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)

Other opportunities to give and serve are just part of being obedient to God’s word and have nothing to do with our spiritual gifts. We don’t get to take a pass on things like helping the needy or giving financially by saying we don’t have the gifts of compassion or generosity.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17, NIV)

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, NIV)

Some acts of obedience are difficult and costly while others bring joy and delight. In either case, the choice to obey honors God and brings Him glory.

If you’re like I was and you’re just guessing at what spiritual gifts you have, can I encourage you to find out?  Take Beth Moore’s words to heart: “Your spiritual gifts are means by which you have been distinctively and divinely equipped to manifest God’s presence and power.” (Children of the Day, p. 143).  Start by reading Romans 12:4-8,1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Peter 4:8-11, then get resources to help you understand spiritual gifts and talk with a pastor to determine what yours might be.

If you attend church at CPC, take the S.H.A.P.E. assessment online and find out how God has uniquely designed you. If you don’t attend CPC, pick up a copy of the book S.H.A.P.E Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life by Eric Rees. You’ll discover more about who God has made you to be so that you can activate your gifts and discover the joy of using them to further God’s kingdom.

Whether it’s natural abilities, spiritual gifts, unplanned ministries or acts of obedience, every good thing starts at the same source: God. Click on the link for a great reminder of this with the song “Every Good Thing” by The Afters.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FY2ycrpbOlw

Moore, Beth; Children of the Day; 2014; Lifeway Press; http://www.lifeway.com

Rees, Erik; S.H.A.P.E. Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life; 2006; Saddleback Resources; http://www.saddlebackresources.com

 


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Developing Your Potential

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Buckling his seatbelt as we drove away from practice, my son turned to me with excitement. “Guess what, Mom? My lacrosse coach wants me to try out for his soccer team this weekend.”

“Wow, buddy, that’s quite a compliment. I didn’t even know he coached two different sports. I guess we can think about it, but why did you say ‘no’ when I asked you about signing up for tryouts a long time ago?” I probed.

After a moment of thoughtful silence, he answered. “I don’t know. I guess it just felt good to be asked and to know he believes in me.”

My son knew he had potential, but he wasn’t motivated to tap into it until his coach validated it too. With the knowledge that someone else was on his side, his confidence skyrocketed. This was obvious even in his last few games of the lacrosse season as he ran up the field dodging opponents and scoring goals. His athletic abilities hadn’t changed, but his belief in himself had grown exponentially.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. When we know a person recognizes potential in us, we are more eager to develop it.   I’ve experienced this in the last few years as others have challenged me to develop gifts God has given me for teaching, leading and writing. I would not be writing this blog if the women in my writers group and an inspiring leader from church hadn’t been there to spur me on. Similarly, I would never have had the courage to start a Bible study for women exploring faith if a friend hadn’t believed in me and partnered with me to do it.

God has given each of us a unique set of spiritual gifts, heart desires, abilities, personality traits and personal experiences to be developed and used for Him. When we take the time to discover and develop them, God uses all of these things to further His Kingdom. Pastor Erik Rees has created some excellent materials for exploring them in his study, S.H.A.P.E. Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life. He encourages us to consider Galatians 6:4-5:

“Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”   (The Message)

As followers of Christ, we’ve been entrusted with a life changing message and all of the tools we need to share it. Yet we often get tempted to find what’s comfortable and stick with it. We rely on the same people to perform certain jobs in ministries without ever asking God if there are new ways He wants to stretch us. Stepping out to risk facilitating a small group or leading worship may sound frightening. Perhaps there is a group of praying parents in need of a leader, but you don’t think your prayers are eloquent enough. Or maybe you’re great with kids, but fear you don’t have the Bible knowledge to lead them at church.   You might have the gift of administration but hesitate, not wanting to commit the time to use it in a certain ministry. Is it possible that you’ve grown comfortable and complacent watching others give and serve? Have you and opted out of using your potential with different rationalizations?

The Apostle Paul was great at coaching and developing the gifts and skills in others. We see this in his relationship with Timothy, a young partner in ministry with whom he traveled. In one letter Paul writes to Timothy:

“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:8-16)

Paul admonished Timothy to persevere and not let his ministry be deterred by insecurity about his youthfulness. He told Timothy not to neglect his gifts but to use them fully and to continue developing them. The purpose was to optimize his effectiveness in sharing the good news of Jesus. Discovering and using our gifts is about honoring God and blessing others, not elevating ourselves.

Maybe you’re like my son who needed his coach to recognize the potential he had.  With an encourager to cheer you on perhaps you’d be more willing to discover new ways God could use you. If you’re intrigued by this idea, pray that He’ll give you the desire and the tools to discover how your gifts, experiences, personality and passion can be used for His glory. Pray for a person who can help you identify them and develop them.  If you already know your gifts, pray and evaluate how effectively you’re using them right now. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you courage and confidence if you’re feeling afraid or insecure. Maybe it’s time to branch out and trust Him to take the next step. Once He starts moving in you, you’ll never want to go back to your ordinary way of life.

Casting Crowns has an inspiring new song called “Thrive.” Click on the link to listen, then pray about how God wants to tap into your potential.