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Where is your focus?

I’m studying through the book of Hebrews as of late, and it’s been quite a reminder of where my focus needs to be … Jesus. Too often I find myself drifting onto other important aspects of church life and then forget to keep the main thing the main thing. The church I serve has been going through a lot of change recently, and when I say, “a lot,” I mean “mega-lot,” and it’s been anything but easy.

Quite frankly, I struggle with listening to the still small voice of God. I wish God would inscribe His will on tablets of stone, hand deliver them, and I could come down from the mountain to instruct His people. But church leadership is not like that, at least not for me. Church leadership is a messy, fluid, oftentimes foggy process of working with others in a collaborative effort to discern and follow the will of the Lord. In a church of 50 people, there will be fifty ideas of what God’s will looks like. In a church of 3,000 people, well, let’s just say it doesn’t get any easier.

This is why I love the book of Hebrews. For Jewish believers, there were many elements of their faith that could take center stage: opinions about the role and importance of angels (chapters 1-2), Moses and the Sabbath (chapters 3-4), the priesthood (chapters 5-7), the old covenant (chapters 8-9), sacrifices (chapter 10), and saints (chapter 11). With each of these important areas of focus, the writer of Hebrews says, “But wait, there’s more.”

Like an attorney building a case, this inspired author demonstrates the supremacy of Jesus over all of these religious matters. Jesus is greater than the angels and Moses, He is the ultimate High Priest, He ushered in a new covenant, He is the final sacrifice, and He is the Center of the faith of those who have gone before us. Therefore, we look to Jesus and take our place in His unshakable Kingdom (chapter 12) as we live out our faith in love, purity, and honor (chapter 13).

In our church, perhaps like yours, there are many elements of faith that can take center stage, what I call the “4 Ps”: preferences, programs, personalities, and projects. If we elevate any of these over the “Perfecter of our faith,” Jesus Christ, we start forming preference clubs, program clubs, personality clubs, or project clubs rather than a Jesus-centered church. Jesus supersedes our personal dominions and unites us all within one dominion … His.

We voluntarily come together in relationships centered on the cross of Christ, which then becomes a church, a called out community. We submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). We obey our leaders and submit to them, “for they are keeping watch over [our] souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). This is to be done “with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (ibid). Ultimately, we submit to “the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20). It is this God, through His Church and by His Spirit, who equips us “with everything good that [we] may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:21).

I don’t want to lose my focus, because when I lose my focus, I lose my way. I want to follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus and be on mission with Jesus, for, after all, the church belongs to Him, not me. For whatever reason, He has called me to serve within His church, just as He has perhaps called you, and together “we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Here we have no lasting city, but as we keep our focus on Jesus, He leads us to “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 13:28). That’s a great reminder for us when so many things around us begin to shake and tremble. Like the disciples in the storm, it’s hard not to lose our focus. But when we keep our eyes on Jesus, He leads us to a “great calm” (Mark 4:39).

So, I leave you with this: where is your focus?

The path of freedom or the slope of slavery?

My youngest son, Luke, and I had lunch today with a wise sage of the faith, George Bebawi, and his equally wise wife, May. Since Luke is going into high school this coming August, I asked George if he had any counsel that might help Luke prepare for this new season of life. George, who taught at Cambridge, St. John’s College in Nottingham, England, and Selly Oak College in Birmingham, England (just to name a few), did, in fact, have some counsel to give Luke. His counsel wasn’t academic, even though he is quite the academician. His counsel wasn’t necessarily theological, although he could spar with any of the theological greats. George’s counsel was fatherly, or, perhaps I should say, “grand-fatherly.”

George told stories of his own childhood, and although many years have passed, and there are obvious cultural differences, the principles of truth, upon which these stories were told, apply in our culture and time as well. George spoke to my son as a loving, discerning grandfather speaks to his grandchildren.

Of the many lessons we learned at George and May’s dining room table, one stood out above all the rest. George said, “In America, people are taught that freedom comes when we follow our heart’s desire. But if there is nothing to guide our heart’s desire, then we have no path to freedom; we only have a slope to slavery.” We think we are free if we get to do what we choose, but that which we choose determines the state of our freedom.

I believe God creates us with the ability to choose. Will I follow God or not? Will I be kind or not? Will I give in to this temptation or not? The fact that I have a choice does not make me free. The commitment to choose wisely determines if I remain free or if I enter the slope to slavery. As George said, “The ability to say ‘no’ is an exercise of one’s freedom which is a defining characteristic of being human. The yielding to immediate gratification simply makes us monkeys.”

In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter (who knew a thing or two about bad choices—cf. Mark 14:66-72), writes this, “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19b).

To Luke, my youngest son: You are free to choose, as am I. That is part of what it means to be human. But as you exercise your freedom, stay on the path God has for you, for only then will you ultimately remain free. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian who was martyred for his faith by the Nazis in April, 1945, once wrote:

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear and longings may lead you away from the path you should follow. Chaste be your mind and your body, and both in subjection, obediently, steadfastly seeking the aim set before them; only through discipline may a man learn to be free.”

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The path of freedom or the slope of slavery? “You were called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13), but the choice is yours. I encourage you to choose wisely.

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