Focus on What?

Have you ever had trouble focusing on the task at hand? Some people struggle with the ability to focus more than other people, but I believe nearly everyone knows what it’s like to have a wandering mind. I know that’s true for me – sometimes, I have the hardest time getting started on my day!

We are in the middle of our “Focus 40” experience, the Church of God initiative that is uniting hundreds of congregations in a quest for deepening our relationships with God and for hearing his voice in our lives anew. The “40” part is easy to understand: these are the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday, which will be here before you know it. I think it’s more difficult for us to understand – and to practice – the concept of “focusing.”

What does it mean to focus? When you are at work, you have to focus on your job; you have to put aside all other distractions and complete the tasks you have been given. When a friend is sharing a personal struggle, a great joy, or a prayer request, you ought to place all your attention on your friend. When your family is going through a difficult time, there comes a point at which you need to focus on solving the problem in a healthy, God-honoring manner. Why are these things so hard to do sometimes?

When it comes to leisure activities, we have no trouble focusing. We watch intently the last few minutes of the TV show or movie. We’re on the edge of our seats for the last few minutes of the basketball game, the last inning of the baseball game, or the last several laps of the big race. Whatever our “fun” activities are, we often pour our entire attention into them. So why is it harder to focus completely on more important things – our jobs, our families, even our own relationships with God?

This is one reason why we are engaging as a church in this “Focus 40” season. Two spiritual disciplines, prayer and fasting, are being emphasized as practices to help us learn how to focus on the Lord. None of us are “naturals” at focusing on things of importance all the time; we each have to learn how to give our attention to the Lord on a regular basis. Several of you have committed to praying regularly or to fasting once (or more) per week during “Focus 40”; please know that I am praying regularly for you as you practice these disciplines.

Focusing on spiritual things is important to the Lord, so it should be important to us as well. Take to heart how this New Testament passage encourages us to take spiritual growth seriously:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25 NIV)

–Pastor David

Give Up Thirst

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:5-42, he was embarking on a journey of self-revelation – without his disciples nearby. And to top it all off, the Savior offered this woman “living water,” as well. What does this story have to do with our own spiritual walks and our call to spread the message of Jesus Christ to a spiritually thirsty world? Click the link below to hear Pastor David’s sermon on this topic.

Listen now!

Surprise Snow

I still have enough “Indiana” in me that I don’t think of March as a month for snow. March is a month for basketball, budding flowers and trees, chirping birds, and a fair bit of rain. Imagine my surprise when we woke up to half a foot of snow this morning! Yes, the weather forecast told me this would happen ahead of time, but it still caught me a bit off guard.

It strikes me that surprise is a very human experience. Some people enjoy surprise birthday parties; some like movies or books with surprise endings. Other people dislike any kind of surprise because of their emotional or physical reactions to surprises. So the ability to be surprised is a pretty common human characteristic. But what about surprise in the life of the Christian? What do our scriptures say about surprises?

In the Old Testament, we read that we should not be surprised when we see injustice in the world, because that’s just the way the world works (Ecclesiastes 5:8). In the teachings of Jesus, we read that we should not be surprised by his call for us to be “born again” (John 3:7). And in several New Testament letters, we read that we should not be surprised by various trials or by the return of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, 1 Peter 4:12-16, 1 John 3:13).

As human beings, we will always be surprised by one thing or another. However, when it comes to matters of faith, we are to have confidence in our Lord: in his faithfulness to us, in his promised return, in his strength that enables us to withstand any trial. And this confidence extends to our mission, as well. We are called by the Lord to meet the needs of those who are in need in our community, so we should face that call, those needs, and the people who are involved with confidence rather than with surprise. The Bible and the course of human history teach us that injustice, poverty, abuse, and all kinds of social ills will always exist in our world – and every generation needs to hear the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Our work is ongoing!

The difference between surprise and anticipation is the difference between being caught off guard and being prepared. In time, I will learn to anticipate snowfall in March (and April? and May?!). In the life of the church, the difference between surprise and anticipation is as great as night and day. I believe that moving toward an attitude of anticipation is part of the process of becoming more like Christ, who always seemed to anticipate the next step rather than to express surprise at a new development in his life. What would our fellowship look like if we lived in constant anticipation of the Lord’s return? What would it look like if we anticipated the needs of our community, both physical and spiritual, before we learned about specific problems facing specific people? I think these attitudes can transform our relationships with each other and with the Lord. What do you think?

–Pastor David

Preview: Give Up the Old Life

In one of the most famous encounters in biblical history, Nicodemus the Pharisee spoke with Jesus under cover of darkness. How can a person be born a second time? he wondered. Our Lord’s answer – which included a prediction of his crucifixion and the most well-known of all Bible verses – is as timeless as it is profound. What is the meaning of this new life? Come worship with us on Sunday as we investigate John 3:1-17.

–Pastor David

Storytelling in the Information Age

Last week, I discussed how present-day American culture thrives on arguments and debates, especially in online forms of communication. This often affects our discussion of religious and spiritual topics in a negative way; our discussions turn into self-righteous monologues that all too easily ignore the point of view of the other person. (Even the word “debate” has lost some of its meaning: when election season rolls around again, will our candidates actually debate, or will they alternate giving monologues? Wait and see.)

At the same time, when we look at the state of Christian faith in our nation, we see a movement in decline. Young people are turning away from the faith of their parents in large numbers. Adults who were raised in the church have fallen into worldliness and spiritual apathy. Christianity feels outdated to many people, and I believe that is partially due to Christians participating in the present culture of one-sided arguments, degradation of opposing viewpoints, and self-righteousness. (Many, many comments on the blog posts mentioned last week fall into this category.)

What are we to do? How do we respond to a declining interest in Christian faith combined with an unwillingness to accept propositional Christian truths at face value? I believe we must reclaim one of our most powerful tools: the art of storytelling.

It is no accident that young people (and adults, for that matter) spend large amounts of time and money watching movies – indeed, series of movies. Many popular movies in the past several years are disconnected from reality in one way or another: Avatar, Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Wars, and so forth. Why are these so popular despite being unrealistic? Their special effects are captivating, true; however, I believe another reason for the success of these films is that they tell their stories well.

There is great power in a well-told story. It can transport both the speaker and the listener to another time and place, and it can encapsulate truth more powerfully than simply stating truth openly. Stories are also powerful tools for bringing about change in society. People don’t want to be told to change how they live, but a story told well can illustrate why a change might be beneficial. This is why classic bedtime stories such as Aesop’s Fables have withstood the tests of time: children need to learn how to behave, and these stories show them how!

Our world needs to know Jesus Christ. Many people are in need of a saving relationship with him. But the direct, argumentative, propositional route is not the best approach for today’s society. Instead, we need to tell our personal stories: how we came to know the Lord, how he has provided for us, how our ancestors lived the faith. And we need to tell our collective stories: how God provided for our church, how God spoke through the prophets of old, how God became human in the person of Jesus Christ.

There is great power in the telling of a story. Who has been a storyteller in your life? To whom have you told your stories recently? What stories do you need to study again in order to be able to communicate them to others? Here’s a hint: open your Bible!

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35 NIV)

Even Jesus used the vehicle of the story to communicate deep truths to his disciples. We too should become better students of his stories – and better storytellers ourselves – so that we can share the truth with a lost and dying generation, especially one with a low tolerance for dialogue but a high interest in hearing a good story.

–Pastor David

Preview: Give Up Temptation

The season of Lent is upon us, and many Christians around the world practice giving up something meaningful as a sacrifice to the Lord. We are participating in Focus 40, the Church of God program involving over 500 congregations in a season of prayer and fasting. What does all this “giving up” language have to do with temptation, which Jesus himself faced in Matthew 4:1-11? And what kind of God would allow such temptation? Come worship as we consider these issues this Sunday morning!

–Pastor David