focus on God

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me.

John 14:1

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

I’ve been enjoying the new hymnbook entitled Voices Together. Reading through new hymns and new songs (to me), as well as familiar hymns. And readings in the back, including morning, evening, and night liturgy, with prayers. Other than a Bible, this is the book I have in hand now every day.

What I’ve found is that it helps me get my focus on God, the same way Scripture does. Well, it’s meant to do that, as we raise our voice in songs, hymns and spiritual songs. With helpful readings and prayers in the back. The present day liturgy of the denominations Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

On the eve of his crucifixion Jesus was telling his disciples some quite heavy things, not only more than they could wrap their heads around, but more than their hearts could bear. But he told them to believe in God, to believe in him. And to realize that in the midst of their troubles, he had overcome the world.

Scripture is replete with this theme. Trouble real and imagined. There is no end to that. But God wants us to lift our eyes up, off our troubles and onto God and God’s promises. We’re to be transfixed there. We can be either looking at our problems, or at God, one of the two, not both. I am speaking of focus here. It’s not like we’re oblivious to reality. But that’s not where we’re to live. We’re instead to live in God.

God will take care of it. Christ has won. What that means for us is that God wants us to learn to live above circumstances, so to speak. Still owning proper responsibility, but doing so in a way which puts God front and center. A matter of both perspective and expectation. Seeing everything more as God does, and finding God’s priority as well as God’s help. Learning to live in that. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:28-3:10

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

1 John 2:28-3:10

And now, children, stay with Christ. Live deeply in Christ. Then we’ll be ready for him when he appears, ready to receive him with open arms, with no cause for red-faced guilt or lame excuses when he arrives.

Once you’re convinced that he is right and righteous, you’ll recognize that all who practice righteousness are God’s true children.

What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. But that’s also why the world doesn’t recognize us or take us seriously, because it has no idea who he is or what he’s up to.

But friends, that’s exactly who we are: children of God. And that’s only the beginning. Who knows how we’ll end up! What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him. All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready, with the glistening purity of Jesus’ life as a model for our own.

All who indulge in a sinful life are dangerously lawless, for sin is a major disruption of God’s order. Surely you know that Christ showed up in order to get rid of sin. There is no sin in him, and sin is not part of his program. No one who lives deeply in Christ makes a practice of sin. None of those who do practice sin have taken a good look at Christ. They’ve got him all backward.

So, my dear children, don’t let anyone divert you from the truth. It’s the person who acts right who is right, just as we see it lived out in our righteous Messiah. Those who make a practice of sin are straight from the Devil, the pioneer in the practice of sin. The Son of God entered the scene to abolish the Devil’s ways.

People conceived and brought into life by God don’t make a practice of sin. How could they? God’s seed is deep within them, making them who they are. It’s not in the nature of the God-born to practice and parade sin. Here’s how you tell the difference between God’s children and the Devil’s children: The one who won’t practice righteous ways isn’t from God, nor is the one who won’t love brother or sister. A simple test.

1 John 2:28-3:10; MSG

If the elder and beloved apostle John were here today, reading this passage, he might suggest that what is happening is nothing less than an identity crisis. And what follows from that is not good.

If we’re God’s children and followers of Christ, that will make a night and day difference. My guess is that John would talk about living deeply in Christ. How that our lives, our very thoughts and actions are to be shaped out of that. And how we can do that, indeed are called to do that no matter what we’re facing or what’s going on in the world. And how that we never have an excuse to do what Christ has commanded us not to do, flying in the face of what Christ did, how he lived.

We in Christ are God’s children, part of God’s family. Do we bear the family resemblance? Are we like our elder Brother Christ? Do we look up to him? If not, then we need to ask ourselves if indeed we are in Christ. Or are our lives more in line with the devil? Is what we’re about, and what we’re doing more in line with that? If we don’t love other brothers and sisters in Christ no matter what, that’s a sure sign we’re off track.

facing the challenges of life

A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

Psalm 121

There is certainly no escape from the challenges of life. They come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak. And many. Expected and unexpected. 

God’s promise to us is that as we look to him, he will help us. Whatever we face, big or small. We can count on God’s help, and as we read in this psalm, God’s protection as well. 

The Lord watches over us. We can count on that. What we need to do is hear the words of this psalm and take them to heart. To hopefully steady us, and take away our fears. To ground us in the way God has for us. In and through Jesus.

keep your eyes on God

A psalm of David.

I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me;
hear me when I call to you.
May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

Set a guard over my mouth, Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil
so that I take part in wicked deeds
along with those who are evildoers;
do not let me eat their delicacies.

Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.
My head will not refuse it,
for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers.

Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs,
and the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken.
They will say, “As one plows and breaks up the earth,
so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave.”

But my eyes are fixed on you, Sovereign Lord;
in you I take refuge—do not give me over to death.
Keep me safe from the traps set by evildoers,
from the snares they have laid for me.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while I pass by in safety.

Psalm 141

We live during a most difficult time given the pandemic which has hit us, and the division that is exacerbated because of it. And we all have our unique challenges to face.

Like the psalmist here, we don’t want to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like nothing is happening. Nor do we want to lose sight of the big picture. The psalmist does neither, as they address God in prayer and with their own thoughts, inspired or not.

And surely the key in the midst of the mess is to fix one’s eyes on God. This takes resolution and discipline, as we face the ongoing trouble, and lift our hearts and troubles to God. In and through Jesus.

leaving everything to follow Jesus

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:10b-11

I’m not sure our Christianity today has enough of this element in it, the idea of leaving everything behind to follow Jesus. Lest we think that was only something for Jesus’s immediate disciples, we should read further, one good example being Paul’s thoughts to Christians in Philippians 3. Like Paul, in Jesus we see something far greater than anything this world has to offer, indeed, greater than ourselves and our own interests.

This might be especially challenging for us who live in relative freedom and plenty. Like the Laodicean church we might still be carrying on as church, but in reality running on empty ourselves (Revelation 3:14-22). It does seem like the sense of need presses us toward following Jesus, although any such following is always a matter of God’s grace in helping us do so. But we have to be careful as to what expectations we have. Our passion should always be about what our Lord’s agenda is: the heart of that being love for God and for our neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). In and through Jesus.

 

 

a different direction

“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

Jesus’s words, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount will probably be met with a sigh and a dismissive shrug if even that, nowadays. The small gate and narrow road seems so confining. People often either want to keep their options open, or just go with the flow.

Instead, Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural in following him. It’s to be small in that Jesus and his words, the good news in him is how we enter and remain. And it’s narrow in that we follow him by paying attention to his words, and to God’s word in him given to us in the gospel and in Scripture.

I think Jesus’s words have a lot to do with focus and intent along with follow through. The title of one of Eugene Peterson’s books comes to mind: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. No matter what, we continue on. With ongoing confession of sins, and change along the way, to be sure. But we continue on. In and through Jesus.

in it for the long haul

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Hebrews 12:1-2

The great book of Hebrews ends with a list of Old Testament saints who were simply people of faith (Hebrews 11). I use saints in the same way all are saints who are God’s people, set apart and holy, consecrated to God. We’re talking about ordinary people who have faith in an extraordinary God. See the passage.

The idea expressed here is not in terms of a sprint, or even a mile long race, but more like a marathon. It is a long race, actually lifelong. So that to run it well, we have to be in it for the long haul.

Often we think in terms of short bursts, or things in front of us we have to do which may take require special effort. We go from one such mini crisis to the next.

What might be more helpful for us is to try to look at everything, including the challenging problems as part of what we are called to do for the long haul. Everything is in the mix. Instead of seeing it all as one short sprint after another, it would surely be more healthy and helpful to see it as a whole, part of the race marked out for us by God. So that we’re not tied in knots over challenges that come our way, or inevitable setbacks.

When we get older, it may be easy to quit thinking in terms of the long haul. But this race lasts until the very end. We who are older ought to be an example in running it. Actually I wish I would have learned this well decades ago.

At any rate, let’s settle in, and by God’s grace throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles us. And with perseverance and endurance run, all the while fixing our eyes on Jesus. The one who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith, whom we follow. To the very end. In and through Jesus.

 

taking our eyes off the Lord

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:28-31

If there’s one thing I’m probably good at, it’s getting focused on, and honed in to a problem, and spiraling down, when the problem can’t easily be resolved. It’s not like we’re supposed to ignore reality, or pretend problems don’t exist. We do carry plenty of responsibility in this life, and we’re to endeavor to stay on top of things insofar as we possibly can.

Why our Lord would walk on the water is an interesting question. Some might say to display his Deity, others, only to demonstrate the difference faith can make. Peter, as did the other disciples, saw himself as a follower of Jesus in the sense of following a Rabbi (Teacher), which meant he was to imitate, or do whatever the Teacher did. So it would be natural for him to assume that if Jesus could walk on the water, than he could too. Certainly bold, as well. And yes, that’s precisely what he did, Jesus responding to his request in the affirmative.

This reminds me of how the Lord has helped me in not ignoring a problem, but bringing it to him, entrusting it into his hands, and then proceeding in peace. Addressing the problem in a more sane, relaxed manner, and moving to, as well as settling in what seems to be the Lord’s leading, and remaining there.

But it’s all too easy, either ourselves, or maybe especially when someone else in our lives, points to the problem in near panic, to follow suit, cave in, and then lose out. Just what Peter did. He saw the waves whipped up by the wind, immediately became afraid, and began to sink. In faith he cried out to the Lord to save him, and Jesus certainly did. Yet Jesus rebuked him, I’m sure gently, for his lack of faith.

This so much reminds me of myself. Just how easily I can get my eyes off Jesus onto the problem, and then inevitably what faith I had is gone, and I’m left on my own to deal with it. God somehow wants us to deal with issues of this life with the help of what will be common place and completely natural in the next life, completely at peace in God, even in sync with God so-to-speak. That is neither an easy lesson for most of us to learn or hold on to, since we’re so used to taking matters in our own hands apart from God, and used to bad things happening if we don’t.

We don’t pretend the issue doesn’t exist, but we endeavor to commit it to God, and either God will help us work through it or let it go, trusting in his direction that it’s alright. The Lord calls us, so to speak, to walk on the water with him in this life. That what would ordinarily sink us doesn’t; we keep on walking, because our eyes are fixed on him. Always in and through Jesus.

 

turn your attention, look to, and focus on Jesus

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

John 12:20-22

Recently we saw what I think amounted to a good documentary on the life of St. Patrick of Ireland. I thought it dealt with what I have read and been taught about his life, evenhandedly and well, for the limited time it had, not including the myths that are either historically unwarranted, or can’t be substantiated. What I like best about it in retrospect, became apparent to me after looking at a popular (I take it) more like film, acting out his life. In this film, the actor playing Patrick was quite charismatic, I suppose, which is beside the point, because actually the actor playing Patrick in the documentary, surely would have been as well, if by charismatic we mean seeing the gift of the Spirit at work through his prayers and life. But if by charismatic, we mean a strong figure who attracts the attention of others, than that was every bit the Patrick portrayed in the film. He looked tall, rugged, strong, a face one could hardly forget, in command, one people would look to, and have confidence in, just because of his appearance. But the real Patrick, or the one that I believe is much more in keeping with what we know of in accordance with historical evidence, and from what we see about this in scripture, was humble, self-effacing, yet firm in his commitment to God’s call on his life. A broken vessel, sharing the gospel. The one as portrayed in the documentary.

Interestingly, in the scripture above, the Greeks didn’t care about seeing the disciples, or followers of Jesus. Or anyone else for that matter, it seems. They wanted to see Jesus. And Jesus surely wanted to see them, as well. But he thought of the great ingathering of Greeks and of all peoples that would take place through what he was about to do. This was Jesus’s response, and what followed:

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

John 12:23-33

Jesus is the one we need to see. It’s not us, or someone else. Only, and forever only: Jesus. Through him we see God. And we see the one who wants to make us fully what we were created to be in what amounts to nothing short of a new creation in him. But it is never marked by our own greatness or goodness. Only his.

Our lives are only as good so to speak insofar as they point to Jesus. If people’s attention is turned to us, that’s not to their benefit in the least, but actually to their destruction. But insofar as we can see Jesus in someone else, that is wonderful, and what’s meant to be. But it is marked by the way of the cross. What we reflect on during this time of the year, as we look forward to remembering Jesus’s suffering and death for us, and the resurrection that followed.

“We would see Jesus.” Yes, me, too. In and through him. Amen.

running a marathon

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

I’m in a particular work situation with quite long hours, but less days per week as a rule. It is not something I’m easily catching on to, nor even want to take on. But with the minor car accident I was in last year, the recent speeding infraction going what I believe is the correct speed limit, but at the wrong time (I didn’t see the lights flashing), it seems that God has me on an agenda to slow down, and even relax where I can.

Much of my work is not really conducive to relaxing. It requires a degree of ability, plenty of discipline in perseverance, and attention to detail. In some ways that reminds me of something I’ve never done myself, but have to take second hand from others: running a marathon (42.195 kilometers, which equals 26 miles 385 yards). I think I could train and do it, though I don’t think I want to, and at my age it’s probably not the best idea, unless I would do it wisely, and perhaps keep doing it. But I’m realizing as I face a number of upcoming weeks with an extra work day, that I need to take it on as a marathon, and less as a sprint, or with sprints along the way. I want to be relaxed about the entire endeavor, insofar as that’s possible.

And that is a part of my life, and therefore something God must be using to help me better find my way in his way. I could name at least another change or two in my life lately, suggestive in the same way. The context to the passage above on running the race focuses on Jesus’s suffering, and therefore our identification with him in that before the world, as the writer to the Hebrews was trying to make clear to the recipients of this letter (and see what follows in the writer’s counsel to them). Hebrews 11 as marked in our Bibles is part of the context of this passage as well. That cites certain actions of Old Testament saints (of course we in and through Jesus are all saints, marked out as God’s holy people), and in the case of Abraham points to a number of actions which had come to characterize his life. So including my work situation into the mix of the larger picture, I think is surely apt.

I must proceed by faith: “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” And to do so according to God’s specified program, which is a matter of God’s revealed will found in scripture in and through Jesus and the good news in him. We never know what a year, a season, a month, a week, and for that matter, a day might bring forth. But we need to try to take life in stride as much as possible, in the context of the full run we’re called to in Jesus.

We’re to run this race marked out before us with endurance and perseverance, getting rid of anything which is a hindrance in doing so. And we’re to do that, fixing our eyes on Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith, especially marked by his suffering and death on the cross. So that whatever comes our way, we can be ready. Realizing that sinners will oppose us along the way, and that God’s loving hand of discipline is necessarily on us as well, to make us holy, that we might share in God’s holiness.

All of this is not easy, but I’m trying to get into the rhythm of being able to get my necessary stride, so that in all of this I can grow together with others in God’s calling for us in Jesus, run the race God has marked out for me, and finish well, along with others in and through Jesus.