Friday, March 28, 2014

Take Every Thought Captive

For the past couple of weeks, I have been doing the Intentionally Focused Bible Study with Good Morning Girls. (I'm about take a break though and prepare my heart and mind for Easter with their Easter Study that starts next week. If you are looking for a way to study the Bible, I highly recommend them. They provide verses and then you write out a focal scripture verse, your observations, applications and then prayer requests/praises. It's the SOAP method and a great way to study God's word. And you can watch the videos on their website that further expound upon the verses every couple of days, too.  Anyway, I am a huge fan, if you couldn't tell! You can go on this page of their website and find reading plans for past studies as well.)

This past weekend I had the pleasure to help coordinate and attend a women's retreat and we did Beth Moore's Loving Well study.  I hope to write more on that later, but for now I will just tell you that I learned a LOT and have been working on the intentional focus of my mind as I begin to love well...don't you just love when God threads several small seemingly different truths (two different Bible Studies) into one large jewel of a truth?! Personally, I think it's because I'm a bit hardheaded and He knows I need preparation and multiple encounters with a truth before it takes root.

Anyway, the nugget I want to share with you today is the importance of intentionally focusing your mind.  The SOAP verses (that we write out) for this week have been Romans 8:6, Romans 12:2, Philippians 4:8, 2 Corinthians 10:5 and Colossians 3:2- look them up now, seriously- they're even linked for you!

The common thread throughout all the verses is obviously dealing with the mind, but it's the intentional focus of your mind on things of God and not things of the world. We have to take every thought captive as it says in 2 Corinthians 10:5.  I love that! We can't let our minds wonder where they shouldn't- and that's big for me!  I am CONSTANTLY over thinking, over analyzing, picking apart each detail, forming responses to offenses in my head- you get the point.  And I bet there are many of you like me. 

So I tell you, we have to stop thinking the negative thoughts- whether about ourselves or others, ouch!
We must be careful what we put into our minds, that includes what we listen to, what we watch, and what we read. We must choose not to take offense at every statement, comment, status, tweet and we need to choose not to think offensive thoughts towards others!  I know it sounds easier said than done, but we need to use the guideline Paul lists in Philippians 4:8- we need to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, lovely, pure, commendable, excellent, or anything worthy of praise!



Ask yourself if the thought you are thinking can fit into any of these categories- is this true? Is it honorable? Is it just? and if it isn't then we need to stop thinking it, we need to take that thought captive, and we need to let it go! Seriously picture flinging it off a snowy mountain as you sing the words if you need to! (And for those who may not know, that is in reference to the Disney movie, Frozen) If we actually put each thought through the filter of questions, our minds can focus more fully on God.  This will help us stop our mouths from spewing gossip and help us to not take offense.  Refocusing our minds also helps us honor God in our marriages by thinking (watching, reading) about things that are pure and not dishonoring to our spouses.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. ~Colossians 3:1-2

Let's honor God not only in our actions but also in our thoughts!  Who's with me?!

Lord, help us to set our minds on You, thinking true, pure, honorable, just, lovely, commendable, excellent, praise worthy thoughts, in Jesus' name, Amen! 


Love in Christ, 

Alyson 

Monday, March 24, 2014

No Pain, No Gain

Living a Christian life is hard.  I'm not going to pretend for a minute that it is all sunbeams and daisies, because it isn't. There are Christians who are stagnant and try to live in a bubble.  They have a salvation experience they can tell others about, but they can't really add much else to their testimony, because they have been sitting still since then.  They are calling themselves Christians but they are trying to live life by their own reasoning on how to live.  I know these Christians exist because I used to be one.

I went to church, I attempted to read my Bible, and I even tithed occasionally. I said I was a Christian, I asked for prayer through difficult tests or loss of loved ones. I threw the name of Jesus around just enough to give the impression that I was a believer. But I didn't actively seek to know him.  I didn't study my Bible, I read it and checked off a chapter on my list, but even that wasn't consistent. I lived a "Christian" life and took a stance on issues based on my own thoughts without actually studying the scriptures to see what God had to say.  I knew very little about the character of God or his son, so how in the world did I think that I was being Christ-like?

Only through actively seeking God did I begin to see just how far from Him I really was.  I stopped saying "I love Jesus" flippantly and actually fell in love with him!  I started actually studying my Bible and reading nonfiction (big deal for me) books that challenged me and encouraged my walk with Christ. Instead of fitting Jesus into my world, he became my world.  I began to see life in a brand new way.  I formed friendships with like-minded believers instead of people who like me called themselves Christians but lacked the relationship with Christ.  I became an active serving member of the church instead of focusing on what I could "get out of it." 

And it's when I actually became a growing Christian instead of a stagnant one, that I realized how hard being a Christian really is.  Because when we are striving to look more like Christ, we give our lives to God and say, "take me, break me, mold me, make me" and I'm here to tell you that the breaking part hurts.  Through the breaking and molding process, God is refining us. 

John Piper says it like this:
A refiner's fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He [God] is like a refiner's fire.
It does say FIRE. And therefore purity and holiness will always be a dreadful thing. There will always be a proper "fear and trembling" in the process of becoming pure. We learn it from the time we are little children: never play with fire! And it's a good lesson! Therefore, Christianity is never a play thing. And the passion for purity is never flippant. He is like fire and fire is serious. You don't fool around with it.
But it does say, he is like a REFINER'S fire. And therefore this is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.
 (You can read or listen to John Piper's complete sermon, "He Is Like a Refiner's Fire" here.)

 I think the "fear and trembling" that Piper mentions is absolutely accurate.  I never look forward to the growing pains that I experience when my relationship with Christ is growing stronger.  BUT the closeness I feel to him during and afterwards is amazing. And if I have to go through the pain of the fire for God to work through me, for His glory then it is completely worth it!




So which Christian are you, stagnant or growing?

Are you willing to go through the fire if God asks you to?



Love in Christ,

Alyson

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Will We Ever Learn



I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but if not, I have an almost 11 month old son, Bug.  Seeing as how this is my first child, I am learning a great deal about parenting and babies.  I was clueless about most things and still by no means consider myself an expert on children and all that that entails.

I honestly think nothing fully prepares you for the experience.  I believe this is because all of us are unique individuals and so are our children...even though we may see facets of ourselves displayed in their physical appearance or personality.  For example, because Bug is crawling, we now know that he can be a stubborn little boy.  I'd love to say he gets this from his daddy (and he may) but according to my parents, he gets it from me.  More than once (as in a lot actually) my son decided he wanted something and no matter how many things we try to distract him with or how many times we tell him no, or even take him or the thing away, left to his own will, he immediately crawls back to it or reaches for it. Stubborn little rascal, or as his grandparents like to say (because grandbabies can do no wrong), "He's just so determined." They mean the same thing but determined just has a more positive ring to it, doesn't it?  Anyway, I digress...

Bug's stubborn determined behavior can be quite frustrating, especially after a long day. But no matter how flustered I get, I still love him with a fierce, protective, unending love and always forgive him for ignoring not listening.

It was at one of these back-and-forth times with Bug that I was reminded again of how truly amazing God is.  He is so merciful with us and gives us such grace. Because, honestly, don't we all operate like Bug even in our adult lives?  We know there are things we shouldn't do, say, watch, hear, etc but we still tend to return to them time after time.   And our God, who loves us with a protective unending love, guides us away and forgives us each time.

This back-and-forth reminds me of the Israelites who were on the way to the promised land. Nehemiah 9:17 says,  “They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”

Just like the Israelites, time and time again we doggedly pursue things that are not in our best interest. I mean, seriously, they wanted to return to slavery?! What were they thinking?  But each time we return to our sin, we indicate our desire to return to slavery as well, as slaves to that sin! ("Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.' " John 8:34)
So even though we aren't the Israelites, we still act very much like they did.  Thankfully, the God of then is still the God of today, "ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" and He does not forsake us!  And through His patience, God's desire is for us to reach a place of repentance.

"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." 2 Peter 3:9

When we repent, then we can be an example like Paul, who considers the great mercy he received from God as a means to glorify Jesus so that others would be saved: "But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life." 1 Timothy 1:16

Have you experienced God's grace and mercy and reached the place of repentance?

Are you like Paul, telling others about Christ's perfect patience and pointing others to Jesus?

Or are you like the Israelites, still running to the sin that enslaves you, instead of trusting God?



 Stop running to sin and start running to Jesus!  "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." John 8:36  And while you're running to Jesus tell others about it, so they can start running to him, too-
because that's the kind of running any of us can do!


Love in Christ,

Alyson
 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Go Team Go!

Before everyone gets all fired up about why the four teams above were chosen for my picture, let me explain. The four schools in the picture starting from the top left and going clockwise are Appalachian State, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Duke.  The reason these four were chosen is because these were the pictures I had of our family wearing these schools. See, my husband graduated from App, I graduated from NC State, he is a Wake Forest fan and I'm a Duke fan... yep, that's how we do life.

No doubt some of you reading this are very passionate about your favorite sports team.  Some of you even now, have words that you would like to say about why we like the teams we do, or why we shouldn't or many other things, some of which probably wouldn't be pleasant.  It is for that reason that I wanted to write this post.

See I live in North Carolina.  For most (not all) people who were born and raised here, this week is a big week for them because they know that it's the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) tournament.  Believe me when I tell you that I am one of those people.  The Friday of the ACC tournament should really be a state holiday in my opinion. ;-)  My whole life, well as far back as I can remember, my family and their friends would get together and watch the games on Friday.  Now don't think it's because we all root for the same team- because we don't.  In my family alone, my mom is a Carolina fan, my dad and I are Duke fans and my sister is a NC State fan.  And I married into an entire family of Wake Forest fans. (At least between all the family we have the four NC teams represented!) We are able to watch the games together though, because we cheer for our teams without bashing the other teams.  And we realize that it's just a game.

If your emotions, attitude, the status of your day changes based on whether your team wins or loses, then you may have a misdirected focus.  As Christians, our focus is to be on Christ.  When we redirect our focus to anything other than Christ, we elevate that thing (person, event, whatever) above God.  And God commanded in Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before me."  

You may not think it is that serious.  Maybe you don't realize how focused you are on sports, or how passionate you have become about your team. Maybe you think, "Sports is not my god, I just like them."  Here are a few questions to see if you have misplaced your passion:

Do you arrange your schedule to watch games/play games, but you never have enough time to read your Bible, pray, or go to church?

Can you name off all of the star players who have ever played for your team, but you can't name the apostles, Books of the Bible, or the ten commandments?

Do you have all the stats for your team and the players memorized but have very few Bible verses memorized?

Do you become angry when someone bashes your team but when you hear negative comments about Jesus you are just mildly annoyed?

If you answered these questions with anything other than no, then maybe you need to redirect where you have placed your focus.  Even if you started trying to justify the answer in your head by rationalizing the answer so it doesn't seem like the wrong one, then you probably need to redirect your focus as well.

"Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually." 1 Chronicles 16:11



Our focus needs to be on Christ first and foremost.  It's when our focus becomes skewed that we say we love Jesus and other people but then talk trash about them. It's when we are passionate about sports and not Jesus, that we feel we can call the other teams' coaches, players or even the referees ugly names instead of recognizing them as people God created.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:3-4
 
Being a sports fan and being a Christian are not exclusive of each other. We can still enjoy sports and root for our favorite team; we can even watch the games and know the players and stats, but we must do so under the banner of Christ.
 
Jesus is eternal, but sports aren't.  Remember, win or lose, it's just a game.

And Go Duke! ;-)


Love in Christ, 

Alyson


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Comparison Game

On Saturday I completed a 5K race.  I didn't run the whole thing but I didn't walk the whole thing either, even though I thought about it.  My husband and I signed up for the race less than a month ago because we wanted to help raise money for the family of Xander, a little boy who is battling his second run in with Ewing's Sarcoma and for the past year has been undergoing chemo and radiation treatments. (You can plug in with that family on their Facebook page Strength for Xander, or if you want to make a donation, I'm sure you can contact them or direct message the Xander Run page.)

Neither my husband or I had run even as far as the mailbox in at least 3 or 4 months, and since having a baby I had not run/walked more than maybe a mile. So we weren't expecting great numbers, we were just going to go out there dressed as superheroes (the theme of the race) and struggle through together.  However, about 2 weeks ago we found out that my husband needed to be somewhere else Saturday and suddenly I was going to be alone.  We had signed up one of our youth to run with us, but she actually runs and is on the track team, so the "together" part was a no go because I didn't want to hold her back.  Running by myself never bothered me before, because this wasn't my first ever 5K, but it bothered me this time, because I was playing the comparison game.

The comparison game is very dangerous.  First, I compared myself to me, well the me of 3 years ago who ran her first 5K in under 30 minutes and for a few months after that ran 5 miles (in under an hour) with no walking and ran/walked 7 miles.  But that me was unmarried, pre-babymaker, and over fifty pounds lighter.  Second, upon arriving at the event I recognized many people that I had gone to high school with.  It wasn't a big deal really, until the race started and all of them were ahead of me.  At this point I just wanted to stop trying to run at all and just walk, so when I finished with a slow time, I could say well I was just here to walk.

But I didn't.  I had prayed for God to give me the strength to run this race, to finish this race, and to do the best I could with his help.  And walking was not the best I could do, so I would run (which is what I call the slow jogging I do, because in my opinion anything on your feet that moves you faster than walking is running) in snippets and then walk and then talk myself back into running.  I will tell you it is hard to push the comparisons away when the man and woman at least 20 years older and the young children pass you.  But I was reminded through this experience that we are all called to our own race.  And this was my race that was set out before me.  It was no one else's- it was only mine.

The author of Hebrews compares our Christian walks of faith to a race saying in Chapter 12, verses 1 and 2, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before uslooking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (ESV, emphasis added)  

We are to live our lives that are set before us with endurance.  The cloud of witnesses verse 1 refers to is the long list of faithful servants listed in Hebrews Chapter 11, but it doesn't mean that we compare our lives to their lives.  I think of it as they are examples of people who have gone before and whose lives we can look to for pointers like a trainer helping you prepare for a race. They show us how to let go of sin in our lives and endure in faith. Our race won't look exactly like their race but by seeing(reading) about their faith journeys we can be encouraged in our own.  And then we see in verse 2 the only person we are ever to compare ourselves to- Jesus.  He is the ultimate example of living a Christian life and the only "scale" we are to measure ourselves with.  

If we play the comparison game with others instead of Jesus we are setting ourselves up for sin failures.  The first failure would be to feel less than what we are.  We forget that God created us with specific detail to be the exact person He wanted us to be.  We make less of Him when we fail to see the greatness of His creation. The second sin failure is that we feel more than what we are.  We start feeling pride that we are better than someone else.  Again, God made every person how He made them.  We all have one unique journey to take with bumps and dips that come in different forms at different times.  To make less of those people, is to make less of God.  And to make more of us is to make less of God.  By the way this also extends not only to you, but also in comparisons of children, husbands, jobs, etc.  

Whether you have a great house, smart kids, or a two bedroom you share with another family and no kids we are each running the race set before us and the only person we should be focusing our eyes on is Jesus.

In the end, I ran/walked my way to the finish line in 46 minutes and 42 seconds...amid cheering and clapping that is given to everyone as they run the last stretch and that is well deserved. Because whether you run the race in 19 minutes or an hour and a half at the end of the race we all went a distance of 3.1 miles!  
 
Me after the race. I was very excited about my socks that had capes and finishing the race!



Is playing the comparison game keeping you from running the race that is set before you?

Are you focused on others more than Jesus?


"But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." 
1 Timothy 6:11-12



Love in Christ, 

Alyson

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How To Deal With Difficult People

Life is full of difficult people. Some are fleeting, the ones who steal your parking spot, cut you off in traffic, are rude in the grocery store. Those people are difficult for sure, but they are strangers and after one interaction they are typically never seen again.

The difficult people I'm writing about in this post are the ones you know, family member, coworker, neighbor, fellow church member (yep I just said that). Our everyday interactions with people we know, we expect to be pleasant. But the fact of the matter is, there are people in our lives who are difficult to be around.  It may be in their actions, in their words, or in their attitude, whatever it is, it just rubs us the wrong way, causing irritation and annoyance. This arousing of our emotions spurs our response. And our reaction is not always pleasing to God... okay honestly, our initial response is rarely pleasing to God.

So, how do we deal with difficult people?

First, I think we are to remember that we cannot control the other person's actions, we can only control our own actions. And as Christians we should want to honor God with our actions, words, thoughts, and yes even our reactions. Matthew 18:21-22 says, "Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times."  Does this mean when they offend us the seventy-eighth time that then we get to smack them? Umm, no.  The point is that Jesus wants us to forgive, forgive, forgive and keep on forgiving.  Matthew 6:14-15 says, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."  And Romans 12:18 says, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." People are not always going to be peaceable with you, but in your dealings with others be peaceable with them.

I know that is easier said than done. Even more so, if these difficult people are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When a fellow Christian is difficult, I think we feel a sense of righteous indignation. [Righteous indignation meaning reactive anger over perceived mistreatment, insult; sense of injustice.]  We believe that because of this injustice or mistreatment by a Christian, that we are justified to react, even if it isn't a godly reaction.  Most often this is seen when the "wronged" Christian sins by calling out the sin of the Christian who "wronged" them.  And in today's world that is usually in the form of a status, tweet, or blog post.

The problem with this reaction is that it in no way honors God.  As mentioned above, if we are to live peaceably with all people, this does not mean that we are to start spreading around to all who will see/hear, how difficult this person is.  It also doesn't mean that we focus so intently on their sins that we forget that we too are sinners.  "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3-4)

In actuality, we are all sinners.  And most of us are difficult people to be around at some point or other.  And if we are Christians, then Christ died for each of us, even the difficult ones!  Yep that's right, the Christian who is difficult and sometimes offensive is still a child of God.  He loves that person just like He loves you. When we remember that important fact, it changes the way we react to that person, they are after all our family, a brother or sister, who is also a joint heir with Christ, the same as us.  

The last (or maybe it should be the first) way we deal with difficult people is to pray.. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Matthew 5:43-44.  Pray for them which you may say you already do, however, instead of praying for God to smite them ;-), we need to start praying for them with love. Pray for their needs, their health, not that they be convicted of their sin, that they change their ways.  The last two are missing the love mark a bit pray for them about things that are completely unrelated to the area of difficulty.  And while we are praying, we need to pray for ourselves.  Pray for our own eyes to be opened to the sin we have in our lives. Pray that we drop the victim attitude and forgive the person, and also that we live peaceably with all people in a way that honors God.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14-21


Love in Christ, 

Alyson