Our culture seems to be busier and more technologically connected than in any time in history, and this requires more intentionality to stay in relationship with God and cultivate deeper relationships with others. We must find ways to mitigate distracted living, because it is diminishing our ability as Christ followers to live out Jesus’ greatest commandments: to love God and love others. This is a journey that never ends, and it is a journey that requires focus.
The antidote to distraction is focused love. The Jesus Challenge: 21 Days of Loving God and Neighbor is a 3-week journey to help you become more attentive to your relationship with God. This book invites you to move from forgetfulness to remembering, from distraction to intentionality, and from self-sufficiency to God-reliance, so that you can live lives that center on loving God and loving others as ourselves.
The book contains leader helps that can be combined with a DVD featuring Justin LaRosa in 8-10 minute video segments designed for small group discussion.
About the Author
Justin LaRosa is a United Methodist Deacon and a licensed clinical social worker. He has served Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa since 2005, first as the Minister of Discipleship and now as the Director/Minister of The Portico, a community gathering space where people come together for conversation, connection, and community change. Justin has co-authored three studies for Abingdon Press: A Disciple’s Path: A Guide for United Methodists; A Disciple’s Heart: Growing in Love and Grace; and Sent: Delivering the Gift of Hope at Christmas. He and his wife Caroline have a daughter, Isabella, and a son, Russell.
Read an Excerpt
Week 1 LOVING GOD
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
— Luke 10:25-28
Jesus was asked many questions. They were posed by many different people with varied motives. But there may be no question that has shaped the way Christians understand love and attempt to live it out than the one we just read that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels — the question that sparked the teaching on the Greatest Commandment. Pull out your Bible and read the three different accounts (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and notice the similarities and subtle differences. There are two different questions asked. Jesus answers directly the question in two accounts. The motive of the asker was clearly to test Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but his intent in Mark is less evident.
In Luke, the lawyer doesn't ask what the Greatest (or First) Commandment actually is. He asks the personal, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" It is a different starting point. Jesus masterfully answers his question by asking one of his own. He says, "What is written in the law?" The man gives the same answer that Jesus did in the other Gospels. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus replies, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
Next week we will explore the lawyer's follow-up question and Jesus' answer. But this week we ask: just how are we to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind? It seems like an unachievable state of being. I mean, how in this world are we supposed to love God with that kind of fervor in everyday living? What does that even look like? It sounds like a pipe dream to most of us. Is it found in becoming so holy that we transcend to some altered, angelic state where nothing disturbs us? I doubt it. I have met some very holy people who love God, but even they couldn't sustain that kind of intention. If we are forced to conjure up a picture of someone who has done this, we might name someone like Mother Teresa. But we struggle to imagine how our own lives could reflect that kind of devotion, dedication, and focus. It's a job in itself. Yet, we long to worship and love the Divine. It's hardwired into us. This is conceivably because we inherently know what Augustine asserted, "God cares for each of us as though each were the only one." Have you experienced that? If you have tasted even a bit of that truth, you will never be the same. Experiencing the magnitude of God's care and love invites response and stokes a desire to be in relationship. And often as we begin to pursue that relationship, but slowly, things get in the way. While we ought to be loving the Lover with everything we have, we often fall short. We get forgetful, distracted, and self-reliant. And God never seems to force God-self upon us.
The journey of following Jesus Christ includes wandering and finding, ups and downs. There are the ebbs and flows to everyday living; we all go through seasons when we feel more connected and less connected to God. "In sync" seasons are akin to serenely floating on the water, allowing the currents to gently move us down the river of life. These seasons can also be fast-paced and in constant flow, while we enjoy the exhilarating ride and easy navigation. Taking in the beauty and blessing around us, we are grateful to God for all that is.
These "in sync" seasons are balanced with periods of doubt, wandering, struggle, dryness, and/or disengagement. Then there are those seasons when we are navigating rapids, being tossed and thrown about, trying to avoid the rocks, and doing everything we can not to capsize. And sometimes we tip over and are swimming mightily to get to safety. Strong forces and indirect currents conspire to draw us away from love and are woven into the fabric of our culture and lives — no matter the season. They affect us sometimes suddenly — sometimes slowly — but they can certainly lead us from creating the space needed to deliberately cultivate our intentional love for God.
When we are drawn away, we can convince ourselves that we don't have time, or we less deliberately just fall out of the rhythm of prioritizing God. We either don't think much about making time or we are just plain unwilling to carve out the time. We question the costs versus benefits and are too unsure of the outcomes to truly invest. Doubts creep in. We wonder if our efforts in the spiritual life actually matter. Are they leading to lives that are more beautiful and purposeful? When church participation and disciplines fall into being rote and obligatory, our connection to God and the church erodes. Combine that with a world that feels out of control, political polarization, discord in the church, and struggles in our own families and our attention to our love for God wanes.
This can happen at any time — whether life is serene, choppy, or has high-level rapids, but the good news is that in every season there is also opportunity to rely on and deepen our love for God by continuing to engage in disciplines that keep us connected to God and the church.
Some of us have seasons in which it is more challenging to focus on our relationship with God. See if you can identify the season you currently are experiencing in the descriptions below.
Seasons of Plenty
Seasons of plenty and successful periods are wonderful. They offer comforts and opportunities. However, for some people, this season pulls them away from focusing on loving God. A pitfall of abundance is that it can deceive us into believing that we are responsible for it, which makes us operate like we have little need for God. Deuteronomy 8 says, "Don't think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the LORD your God! He's the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous" (vv. 17-18 CEB). Success can gradually, unfortunately, move our hearts away from God. Often it takes unanticipated circumstances we can't control to jolt us back.
Embarking on homeownership was an exciting journey for my wife, Caroline, and me. Our lives were going through many positive changes. In addition to buying a house, we were newly married, had both recently started new jobs, and had just brought home a second dog. We were connecting with a new church and taking steps to be involved. In summary, we were busy with the blessings of life. And as a result, my spiritual practices took a back seat. To say the house we purchased needed work was an understatement. You walked in it and smelled the fresh aroma of mildew mixed with dog and cat urine. The air conditioner repairman said the ductwork was the worst he had ever seen. So Caroline and I got busy — with our time and our pocketbooks. We spent so much time in home improvement stores that I began to get to know the managers and workers. And over the course of two to three years, the house was transformed. We created a nest that was comfortable and felt like home. I actually can't even imagine the number of hours we spent on it. The summer after completing this huge renovation we went to North Carolina for a week. Caroline was five months pregnant with our first child — another blessing. During the time away, I was reading a number of books as well as the Bible. And for whatever reason, a particular passage kept popping up — in my reading, on the radio, and so on. I thought nothing of it. But in the near future, it would have significance. The day before we were to leave, I felt a strong inclination that we had to go home. I didn't even know why.
After the ten-hour journey back to Florida, I was the first to enter the house. Caroline and the dogs were still outside. I'll never forget the noise — it was deafening. It sounded like a spraying fire hose. I walked into the kitchen and water was pouring from the ceiling like a sprinkler. I was confused since all of our pipes were under our one-story house. What I quickly discovered was the plastic icemaker line connected to the refrigerator had broken, creating a geyser of water that was shooting against the ceiling. Later we discovered that the water was likely gushing for five days. Let's just say that our newly renovated house needed some more renovating.
And like a flash, the Scripture that kept popping up now suddenly had new meaning:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
— Matthew 6:19-21
Strangely, I simultaneously experienced a deep sense of conviction and a profound sense of peace. The conviction came from the knowledge that I had spent the better part of two years being way too preoccupied with the house. It sucked up my weekends, thoughts, energy, time, and attention. While I was still engaged in my faith journey, the reality was that loving God and neighbor took a back seat. It was time that I would never get back. While it was not necessarily wrong to do renovations and repairs, some of which were necessary, the investment had been too great and the returns too small. My heart needed to be invested elsewhere.
The immediate peace I experienced came from the insight that all of this "stuff" wasn't important, and that it was all replaceable. In the big scheme of things, it wasn't that big of a deal. By God's grace, it was easy to put all of it into perspective. It truly was a spiritual awakening that happened in that moment. I was excited and invigorated, and I rushed to share my revelation with Caroline about the Scripture and how everything was going to be alright. ... which was a mistake. (It's probably best to give your pregnant wife time to process water gushing from the ceiling before praising it.) We laugh about that day now, and though I wish that I could tell you that I was never again distracted from loving God during times of plenty, I can at least tell you that we remember this day and try our best to let it serve as a lesson.
Reflect upon a high season in your life, when there was abundance and you were acutely aware of blessings. Was it a time that led you to more deeply love God, or did it slowly pull you away? How can a season of plenty guide your actions to love God?
Seasons of Difficulty
Times of difficulty — just like abundance — can bring us closer to God or drive a wedge between us and God. They can affect our ability (or willingness) to love God. Scarcity, debilitating suffering, and conditions we can't control not only bring about perplexing questions but also can leave us feeling empty and alone. If the pain doesn't drive us toward God and community, we often allow it to separate us from the same. It may be that we just don't know what or how to pray. Or we may not be able to see how any good can come out of the tumultuous storm we are navigating. Have you ever been there? When in the darkness, Paul's wisdom in the Letter to the Thessalonians makes no sense at all: "Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).
Early on in my walk with Christ, I was struggling. Things were hard, and I had a multitude of challenges to navigate, most of which I created through my own brokenness (but not all of them). Asking God or anyone else for help was not something to which I was accustomed. I didn't have much experience because I was used to managing life on my own terms: stuffing, avoiding, or denying my need. I could put on the "Sunday smiles" with the best of them — you know, when you are walking around with pain in your gut at church but are smiling away when people ask how your life is. I thought that I should be able to handle it without assistance. Pain and fear broke down my unwillingness. It was only in a vulnerable moment that I relented to my resistance and contacted a trusted mentor for advice.
The man was wise, brutally honest, and direct. His demeanor, delivery, and presence were comforting yet didn't sugarcoat any difficult truths. After detailing my situation, he said that my way of dealing with life wasn't working and that a new attitude would be required for change. He said, "Your tank is empty. You must take a new approach that shifts reliance away from your own resources to God's. Trust more fully in God's love." His advice and proclamations were underwhelming. But, again, I was willing to explore more of what that meant, if only because I was in so much discomfort. Pain can be either a stumbling block or motivator for growth. I bit on the suggestion. "Okay, so how? How do I have a new attitude, and what does the approach look like?" He didn't answer directly, responding with, "I monitor the level of my car's fuel tank closely. I never let it get below the halfway mark, ever. Whenever it approaches half, I beeline it to a filling station and fill it up." The puzzled look on my face must have spoken volumes. So he continued, "You see, there are always times in life when we face difficulties, when we have to travel much farther than we thought without the benefit of a filling station. If I make sure I always fill up before it goes to half a tank, I can be sure that I have done everything possible to not run out of gas."
Again, my scrunched face must have communicated what I was thinking, which was, "What are you talking about? Fill our tank up with what? What does filling your gas tank have to do with anything?" I truly just did not get it. He finally explained (and the lightbulb in my brain finally lit) that turning to God is what fills the tank, and we need to go to the filling station habitually. As Christians, we do that through prayer, contemplative practices (meditation), and reading and reflecting upon the Scripture and worship. These are the vehicles through which our tank is filled. And regularly going to the station for a top off ensures that when difficult times come, we have enough to keep going. In other words, going to and cultivating our relationship with God is best done methodically through spiritual practices. Through them we are filled, and our obedience to them illustrates our love for God and desire to grow.
My mentor ended with a word of warning. He said, "It's hard to play catch-up when your tank has been running on fumes for a long time. If you run into a desert on 'empty,' you'll probably be stranded for a while."
What is the current level in your tank? How often are you visiting the filling station? Is it easier for you to connect to God in difficulty, or is it the time when you shy away? What does going to God in difficult times to fill your tank look like? Which spiritual disciplines connect you to God the most?
If you grew up in or currently worship in a mainline Protestant or Catholic tradition, then you are likely familiar with the liturgical calendar. Though it varies slightly among denominations, its purpose is for Christians to reflect upon, celebrate, and engage the mystery of Christ intentionally throughout the liturgical year, which is divided into a number of "seasons." Each one commences with the anticipation of another. Advent is the first season, usually falling in late November or early December, and begins on the fourth Sunday that precedes Christmas. Some other seasons are Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. These seasons commemorate the highs and lows of Christ's story, including the birth of Jesus, the first recognition of Jesus as Christ, the journey to the cross, God raising Jesus from the dead, and the powerful coming of the Holy Spirit that started the church. But the liturgical calendar also includes another very important season called Ordinary Time. It's the longest season of the year and takes us through the life of Jesus. "Ordinary" isn't meant to denote rote or boring; it is designed to bring about growth and maturity.
Like the calendar, the largest part of our lives resides in ordinary time. Things are chugging along. The rhythms of life are on rinse and repeat. And while lots of maturity and growth in love can materialize from apexes and the nadirs, there is a special opportunity to cultivate loving God in the simple, in the repeatable, in the mundane.
But just like in times of plenty and difficulty, ordinary time has its challenges.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Jesus Challenge"
Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
A "How-To" Note from the Author 9
Methodical Prayer 19
Week 1 Loving God 25
Week 2 Loving Neighbor 59
Week 3 Loving Your Enemy 91
Leader Helps 125
Appendix A Centering Prayer 139
Appendix B Lectio Divina 141