If you want to see stars, get away from the distractions

stars-stargazing-shining-light-bright_1170x350

You can see the universe from the front yard of Safe Haven Farm. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth. Out in the country, the Milky Way stretches out across the sky in all its hazy glory, and even the Pleiades is easy to spot.

I’ve always loved stars. Maybe it was the influence of Star Trek so early in my life, or maybe I’ve just always been a nerd, but I love studying the constellations and the names of stars and who discovered them. I love studying the planets and their moons. I’m so nerdy that I even follow NASA and read about new discoveries and the ongoing programs trying to get to Mars.

To me, stars represent entire worlds that I’ll never see, aspects of creation that are so much bigger than I am, reminding me that I’m just a tiny piece in the overall puzzle of God’s great masterpiece.

It makes me think about how Christ-followers are supposed to live. Not distant and mysterious–but like little pieces of God’s big plan, the evidence of a life beyond, proof that there’s something more amazing out there than what we have on our little old planet Earth.

In Paul’s amazing letter to the Church at Philippi, he talks about how Christ-followers can shine in a world covered in darkness. In Philippians 2:14-15, he writes, “Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]There are just as many stars in the sky in the city as there are in the country. It’s just that in the city too many things get in the way.[/su_pullquote]

Isn’t it interesting that Christ-followers can lose their shine just like stars? And it’s not that they aren’t Christ-followers. It’s just that other things get in the way. We complain. We argue. We stumble and fall. And before you know it, any light we had is muddied, and we look exactly like the people around us.

Living out in a rural area, you cut out all the distractions that the noise of the city throws into the sky. The pollution and the big buildings and the trees and the bright lights all take away from the beauty of the heavens. It’s not that the stars aren’t there.

There are just as many stars in the sky in the city as there are in the country. It’s just that in the city too many things get in the way, and they block out the stars that can be seen with other things.

I want to shine for Jesus. I want to be a light in the dark that points people to Him, because He’s done amazing things in my life, and I didn’t do anything to deserve any of it.

Christ-followers aren’t called to complain or criticize or argue with each other. We’re called to points of light in a world of darkness, showing people that there’s more to life than this broken existence.

If you want to see the stars, you have to get away from the things that distract from them. If you want to make a difference for Jesus, you need to get away from the things that steal your light.

So don’t complain. Don’t argue. Hold on to your faith and your trust in God, and let the world see you do it. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to believe.

 

Don’t forget who the story is really about

When I’m writing a story, sometimes I get lost in it. I’m not sure how other people do it, but when I write, I’m really just watching a story unfold and committing the events and dialog to paper. Sometimes I don’t even know how it’s going to end. There are stories I’ve written where all my attention has been focused on what a character looks like or what a character says or what happens next in the story, and those are all important things to know. But it’s in those moments when I get so caught up in the details that I forget the point.

Some people will say that character is the most important part of a story. Others believe it’s plot–the chain of events that unfolds in a book. But I disagree with both of those. They’re important, yes, but not the most important. The most important part of a story is the message. Every story has a message, a lesson to learn, a point to communicate. And if you get so tied up in the characters and the voices and the settings and all the million little picky details, you run the risk of letting the message slip through your fingers.

Today’s verses are Matthew 17:1-8.

Six days later Jesus took Peter and the two brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain to be alone. As the men watched, Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Peter exclaimed, “Lord, it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But even as he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy. Listen to him.” The disciples were terrified and fell face down on the ground. Then Jesus came over and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” And when they looked up, Moses and Elijah were gone, and they saw only Jesus.

Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ inner circle–Peter, James, and John. The original three amigos. Can you even begin to imagine what they saw that night? In the blink of an eye, the veil covering Jesus’ earthly form pulled back, allowing them to see a piece of who He is. And if that weren’t enough, two legends from Jewish history decided to stop by for a visit.

Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah! My gosh, you don’t even have to know the Bible very well to know who Moses is. And Elijah may not be as familiar to you as Moses, but he’s the guy who called down fire on Mt. Caramel. These guys are heavy hitters. And their bodies had long since returned to dust.

So you can’t exactly blame Peter. I would have been excited too. Moses and Elijah! But Peter missed the point. Just like we do so often.

We take Jesus for granted because He’s always around. His name is everywhere, and we get used to Him, sort of like Peter did. Yeah, Jesus is a big deal, but He was always with them. Seeing two Old Testament prophets wandering around like they hadn’t been “dead” for a thousand years? Now that was something to write home about.

But God set Peter straight. The story isn’t about Moses. And it’s not about Elijah. The story is about Jesus, and it always has been. From before time began and long after time runs out, the story will forever and always be about Jesus. He’s the message. He’s the point.

Have you started to take Jesus for granted in your life? Are you more excited about something God is doing rather than the fact God is the one doing it? Take a step back. Take a moment to think about what actually matters.

It’s great to celebrate the details. It’s wonderful to focus on specific aspects of a job or a relationship or, like in my case, a novel. But don’t let those details get so big that they overshadow what really matters. Don’t forget who the story is really about.

Tractor tracks on Pleasant Valley Road, Haven, KS

Don’t get sidetracked

Have you ever started a year trying to plan ahead because you know it’s going to be wild and crazy? I still think it’s a good idea because you have to know what resources will be available, and you won’t know that until you set it all down and look at the  big picture. But what happens when your year gets wilder and crazier than you expected? What happens to your carefully laid plans then?

I’ve posted about this before, and I’m posting about it again because it’s something I’m struggling with. Nearly everything I’ve planned for this year has changed due to circumstances beyond my control, and I’m not upset about it. I’m just trying to figure out how to cope. And I really think that’s part of the danger of planning too well. When life throws you a curve ball, you don’t always know how to hit it because you’re too busy looking in all the directions you think it might go instead of watching the ball itself.

Tractor tracks on Pleasant Valley Road, Haven, KS

Tractor tracks on Pleasant Valley Road, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are Proverbs 4:25-26.

Look straight ahead,
and fix your eyes on what lies before you.
Mark out a straight path for your feet;
stay on the safe path.

When you have so many things happening, so many issues to take care of, so many things going wrong or even going right in some instances, it’s really easy to let your focus slide. That doesn’t sound possible, but it happens, doesn’t it? Or maybe it just happens to me. I find that when one plan changes, it changes all my other plans. So while I’m scrambling trying to make sense of the rest of my life and salvage what I can from my plans that are falling through, I neglect the reason the first plan changed. And usually it’s because of something happening right in front of me.

I get focused on the future. I get focused on what might happen. I get focused on the plans that aren’t even taking shape yet, and I forget about what’s happening today. Maybe that’s part of being a big picture person. Maybe that’s because I don’t like detail. I don’t know, but it’s not a very smart way to live because instead of hitting home runs, the balls keep hitting me.

So I needed today’s verses. I need to remember to look straight ahead at what is right in front of me. It’s not bad to look to the future. It’s not bad to plan for what might happen, but we can’t forget what’s happening right now.

We can’t control tomorrow. Honestly, we can’t even control what happens today. We can only control how we react to what happens today, and that has more power over what happens tomorrow than any of our careful planning.

And when you get focused on what’s in front of you, don’t get distracted looking at the sides. Don’t let your focus drift. Nothing wastes more time (time that you probably don’t have) than fooling around with issues that aren’t even on the road you’re walking.

Taking an alternative route is fine as long as it’s God who leads you down that path, but if you’re getting off the road He set you on just to satisfy your own curiosity or to make someone else happy, you’re asking to get lost.

Keep your eyes straight ahead. Plan where you’re going today. Have an idea of what you’re going to do tomorrow, but don’t count on it too strongly because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The only thing you should believe in 100% when it comes to planning is that God’s going to do what He’s going to do, and it will be better than what you’ve got planned.

So walk straight. Deal with what’s in front of you, and don’t worry when your plans change. In my experience, even if the change isn’t welcome, it will work out for the better in the end.

Scottish flag flying at the top of the walls of Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Distractions often disguise themselves as opportunities

Life is full of distractions. Have you noticed that? I’m easily distracted anyway, so when life is full of little things that destroy your focus, it’s incredibly difficult to accomplish anything of significance.

Some distractions look like great opportunities, and because we’re so desperate for those opportunities or because we want a break from “normal” life so badly, we jump at the chance to do something different. Some distractions look like actual danger, and because we don’t want to jeopardize what we’ve already accomplished we take the necessary steps to minimize the damage. The point is that most distractions don’t look like distractions, but every distraction has one thing in common: they will pull you away from what you’re supposed to be doing.

Scottish flag flying at the top of the walls of Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Scottish flag flying at the top of the walls of Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Today’s verse is Nehemiah 6:1-3.

Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet set up the doors in the gates. So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But I realized they were plotting to harm me, so I replied by sending this message to them: “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?”

I really love the Book of Nehemiah. It’s so different from many other books in Bible, mainly because it’s written in first person (which is probably something only a writer would care about). But the story of Nehemiah in a nutshell is that God told Him to go rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and God put him in a specific place in his life to be able to request the personnel and supplies he needed. But there were people who didn’t want to see the walls of Jerusalem rebuilt, so Nehemiah and his builders faced extreme opposition throughout the process. One group that seemed to be a perpetual thorn in Nehemiah’s side was this trio of troublemakers, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

Today’s verse wasn’t the first time they had tried to get Nehemiah’s attention. If you just read these verses, though, you might be tempted to think that Nehemiah’s being rude, but I encourage you to read the whole book of Nehemiah. It’s not long, only 13 chapters. And you’ll see exactly what this guy went through in order to do what God had called him to do.

Each of us has an appointed task in our lives right now. Some tasks are “bigger” than others. Some tasks may not feel like tasks because you’re enjoying it so much. Others may feel like a constant test every day, challenging you with every breath to give up. But it’s most likely you know what that task is no matter what it is. For some, your task may be to go to work and do the best you can for your employer. For others, your task may be to take care of your family. And then there’s others whose task may be planting a church or ministering to the lost or encouraging others. Whatever the calling in your life, if you know it’s from God, you can be sure you will encounter distractions along the way.

We have an enemy who wants nothing more than to see us fail, and he will stop at nothing to halt us in our tracks. And if he can’t make us fall, he’ll load us down with too many things and keep us so distracted we’ll miss God’s instructions.

So how do you identify a distraction? That can be difficult. Distractions oftentimes look like something good. Obviously distractions will change from person to person, but they’ll have a few things in common. They’ll take you away from what you’re doing and push you to invest your focus somewhere else. They’ll wear you down with emotional garbage. They’ll fill up your calendar with things that don’t matter, that don’t help others, that waste time and money you don’t have to begin with. Distractions are selfish things; they take and take and take and give nothing in return.

And I’m not talking about taking a day of rest or even a week of rest. Don’t misunderstand. I’m the kind of person who will drive myself into the ground and won’t stop to rest because I’m afraid it will hinder my productivity–but the opposite is true. We weren’t created to run 24/7. We all need a break, a time to rest, a time to refocus, a time to just chill. And if you take a week to let yourself breathe and come out feeling refreshed, that isn’t wasted time. That’s not a distraction.

But if you take a week and fill it full of useless things that don’t benefit you or anyone else, a week that doesn’t improve your relationship with God, a week that turns into two weeks or three weeks or even a month–that’s a distraction.

Don’t be afraid to say no. I’m talking to myself here because I struggle with that word. Ask God. Take it up with Him and make sure what you’re turning down really is a distraction, but if it’s going to pull you away from things you’re supposed to be doing, you’re probably safe in assuming that it’s not what He wants you to do.

Avoid distraction. It’s not helpful, and it’s not healthy. God has designed you for a specific purpose, and letting the enemy guilt you into doing something you aren’t meant to do will only increase your stress level and make you ineffective. Saying no to something you weren’t supposed to do in the first place isn’t selfish; it’s wise.

The old Roman road next to the remains of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Living for a day that may never come

Creative people are easily distracted. I’m speaking from personal experience. I can have every intention of focusing on one particular thing, and then I see something else (something shiny) and my whole focus goes out the window. And before I know it, I’m off on some rabbit trail that leads me around in circles, and I can’t even remember what I had intended to finish in the first place. Some people are born with focus in their DNA (like engineers), but for others, focus has to be learned and practiced.

The old Roman road next to the remains of Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

The old Roman road next to the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verses are Proverbs 4:25-27.

Look straight ahead,
    and fix your eyes on what lies before you.
Mark out a straight path for your feet;
    stay on the safe path.
Don’t get sidetracked;
    keep your feet from following evil.

The practicality of the Bible always amazes me. It shouldn’t by now, but I think I’m just awed that God cares about our daily lives so much that He would include things like this. It’s good advice.

How often do we get sidetracked? How often do we wander off the obvious road to try to make it down a path we think is better? How often does our gaze deviate from where we should be looking? I hate to admit it, but for me, the answer is frequently.

I don’t have much trouble with looking back, honestly. I try not to live with regrets, but when it comes to looking forward, I tend to look sideways. I focus on what’s way out in front of me rather than what’s straight ahead. I focus on what I think is coming ten years down the road instead of what’s coming tomorrow. And that’s not necessarily bad, but when you live your life planning for ten years from now, the things that are happening today don’t get done.

We all have opportunities in our lives. I’m sure all of us will have opportunities in our lives ten years from now too, but opportunities ten years from now will be shaped by how you handle the opportunities at your feet today. You can’t plan for what’s coming on the other side of the hill because you can’t see it yet.

Instead, focus on what’s right at your feet. Focus on what you can do today. Maybe it’s not as much fun. Maybe it’s not as glamorous. But if it’s in your path, it’s for you to accomplish, and you’ll learn something from it. Make the choice to deal with what’s in front of you before you start daydreaming about ten years down the road.

I’m not saying to forget about the future. That’s foolish. Planning for the future is wise. But there’s a big difference between planning for what might happen and living your life as though you know what will happen. The future matters, but today matters more because today is the foundation of tomorrow.

So stay on the road. Walk straight. Keep moving forward. Don’t get distracted. You’ll get over the hill to the other side eventually, but when you first see the hill you’re not ready for it. You’ve got to deal with the obstacles in your path first. Then, you’ll be ready to face what’s on the other side.

None of us know the future. We can assume certain things will happen, and we can dream, for sure. But living for the future doesn’t help you with today. And if you live for a day that may never come, what has your life been about?

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

The difference between distraction and importance

Have distractions ever caused you to be someone you’re not? Or to do something out of character? Recently, I experienced just that. Friday two weeks ago, I had a big day planned. I got off at Noon and headed for home. And the only explanation I can offer is that I was six steps ahead in my brain when I pulled out of the parking garage, and in my mind I was already on the highway. But you can’t drive like you’re on the highway when you’re navigating downtown Wichita at Noon.

I ran a red light at Central and Broadway. A 2010 Honda smacked into my passenger side and threw me into a big red Dodge Ram. No one was seriously injured (thank God), but my car–my awesome 2008 Malibu that had served me so well–was completely totaled.

I wasn’t texting or talking on the phone. I just had too much going on in my head. I just zoned out. And zoning out isn’t bad. Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes you need to zone out, but there are times when you can’t. There are times when you have to stay focused and on your game, and one of those times is when you’re driving in a city.

Distractions are everywhere. But it’s our choice to be distracted.

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo - Wichita, KS

Otter at the Sedgwick County Zoo – Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Luke 10:38-42.

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The story of Mary and Martha is one of those old Bible stories that is recounted in flannelgraph and puppet shows all the time, mainly because it’s so relevant to everyone. Even as adults, it’s a message we need.

Don’t get distracted. Even if it’s by something good.

You get that, right? Martha wasn’t overloaded doing bad things. She was making a big dinner for Jesus and His disciples. That’s not bad. That’s awesome! Remember, these guys left home. They left everything they had. Not a luxurious way to live. And I’m friends with enough guys to know that if they hit the road all together, they would rarely have home-cooked meals. They would eat out all the time. For Martha to sacrifice her time and her finances to provide a big home-cooked meal for thirteen hungry men is incredible.

And Jesus was grateful, I’m sure. But you have to get down to the heart of the issue here. Martha was a doer, a controller, a worker bee. She was probably Type A. On my writing blog, I did a series on character profiles based on a book called How Can I Get Through To You, and I’m pretty sure that Martha would classify as a Driver. And Martha had convinced herself that she needed to do something for Christ. She needed to make Him a meal.

Cool. That’s good of her. But Jesus hadn’t asked her to do that.

It’s never Jesus’ intention for us to run ourselves ragged. We weren’t designed to be in constant motion. We weren’t designed to fill up our brains with details and stress until it’s so full we can’t function properly. We weren’t designed to live that way.

God designed us to work, yes. And work is good for us. And serving is even better. But in Martha’s case, serving became extraneous. Her focus had become the work. Her perspective had shifted to herself, and she wasn’t serving so much anymore as she was just running around like a crazy person and hoping that Jesus would realize she thought she was doing it for Him.

I get that way. I think we all do. But the point today is that if we fill up our lives with distractions, even if they’re good distractions, they’re taking us away from a true relationship with God. If we’re so busy running around trying to accomplish things and be productive, we’re going to miss the opportunity to be still and listen.

God never told us to kill ourselves serving Him. He told us to be still and know Who He Is. Yes, we’re supposed to do the Word, but the Word is to listen. Yes, action is important and necessary, but the Bible is a book of balance.

Slow down. Focus. Eliminate distractions. Make priorities and keep them. Because the more extraneous details you get tangled up in, the better your chances are for missing the point completely. And not only will you miss the chance, you may end up doing something out of character. You may end up hurting someone.

God is a God of second chances, yes, and I’m thankful for that. I’m more thankful for that than I have ever been. And when we screw up, He’s there with forgiveness. But if you know the truth, why live like you don’t? If you know the difference between distraction and importance, why choose the one that will waste time?