Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The KIVA Story - Changing Lives.

I had the chance to hear Jessica Jackley speak at a conference a couple of years ago and was struck by her story. She founded KIVA, a brilliant idea to provide micro-loans to the poor, funded by ordinary people like you and I. Listen to this talk, I think you'll be inspired, and perhaps become part of the solution.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dream Center - Los Angeles

In the heart of Los Angeles is a ministry facility called "The Dream Center." It was formerly home to the largest hospital west of the Mississippi. It very nearly became another studio for Hollywood productions, but the nuns who ran it decided instead to sell it to some people with a dream.

They envisioned a place where prostitutes, gang members and drug addicts could find another chance. They wanted to establish a ministry to meet the needs of single-parent families, troubled youth, the homeless and people from all walks of life. The dream center is that place.

A small group of people from our local church will be traveling to Los Angeles for a week of volunteer work in the Center. I thought this was a good time to look back on my own visit a couple of years ago. I took four teens to volunteer our services in their ministries to those living in the inner city. It was an eye-opening experience.

The week was designed to give us an idea of the various ministries that operate out of the Dream Center, so each day was different. We unloaded some of the skids of corporate donations of food and repacked them for distribution to some of the poorer neighborhoods. We made sandwiches and took lunch and water to Santa Monica Beach and conducted an outreach to homeless youth. Some of our team worked in the kitchen for a morning, preparing for one of the three meals each day served from the cafeteria which feeds hundreds daily.

We went on a special mission one day to deliver and assemble bunk-beds and other furniture for a family whose children were sleeping on the floor. Family services were going to put the children in foster care if they couldn't get beds. The Dream Center has a large room full of used furniture donated from the community for needs such as this.

We traveled to skid row, where thousands sleep on the street each night. We brought a hot meal and served 80-100 people. We went to visit people who were living under a bridge. It was my most memorable experience. I had the chance to talk with a middle-aged woman named Cecilia. She welcomed me and introduced me to her friends who shared the shelter. She invited me to sit in a broken office chair she had picked up somewhere, while her puppy wagged its tail contentedly. We brought her a blanket and some water for which she was very grateful. I asked how long she had lived here, she smiled and said that this had been her home for five years. It was much better than skid row, her previous home. Later I found out that drug addiction had brought her down to skid row, but now she was clean and trying to stay that way. The Center will offer her a new start when she's ready. Before we left she called her friends over and we joined hands and prayed for God's protection on her. Our friend Matt promised to visit her soon with some more water and canned goods. By the way, while we were there a freight train came through her front yard and dropped some medical supplies, a regular occurrence. I appreciate my home so much more now than before.

On Saturday some of us gathered on buses which we had previously loaded with supplies for the Adopt-A-Block program. The buses carried food and other necessities to neighborhoods which were a part of the regular rotation. The buses were filled with volunteers who piled off and gathered up the neighborhood kids to play at a local park while food was distributed to the parents. Then teams went out door-to-door to see what was needed. Sometimes it may be a specific practical need, often it was just advice, prayer or a listening ear. But you could tell that the regular volunteers had become family to these people. As the buses rolled up, people would come out of their homes and welcome the workers they knew by name. Afterwards many of the area youth returned on the bus to the Dream Center for basketball and to hang out until the youth service - a high-energy inspirational event at nearby Angelus Temple.

My son, Levi, had the opportunity to play to a different type of crowd than he was used to at the weekly coffee house for Hope For Homeless Youth. Another of our team spent that night working with a local chef who was preparing for the next day's outreach and baptism at Venice Beach. He worked from 10 PM until 2 AM and was back at it the next day for another 8 hours.

We also had the chance to travel with Metro Kids into the neighborhoods to do outreach to children. Our team leader was a man who had been reached through a program just like this. It aims to provide positive adult role models to kids who are constantly bombarded by gang violence, crime, poverty and the effects of family disintegration. You have to see the expression on the children's faces to realize just how much of a difference is being made.

The scope of this largely volunteer outreach was staggering. Literally hundreds of volunteers each week make this "church that never sleeps" effective. In the dorms are scores of people who are working their way through rehab programs. Many of the staff and volunteer leaders are graduates of the program. Joining them are interns from all over the world who have come to learn, work and make a difference.

There are too many stories to tell and many memories, sights and smells which words cannot describe, but I wanted to try. When I imagine the type of church that Jesus intended when He established it, this is what it looks like. I'm glad for the experience. To keep track of what's happening at the Dream Center, check out their Facebook page.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Do It Now" - The Principle of Inertia

Part 5 of 6
Inertia has been defined as "the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest or of a body in straight line motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force." There is a propensity with most of us to stay where we are and to continue doing what we have been doing. Yet it also is true that "if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always gotten."

If you've read this far in the series it's quite likely that you really are wanting to make positive change in your life. If so, this key is vital for you: start now. The world is full of people who have every intention of doing the right thing. They're planning on saving, losing weight, getting in shape, charting a growth plan for their life or any number of worthwhile goals. Yet it never seems to happen.

For some it's because they suffer from "the paralysis of analysis" - the need to look at every aspect of the decision in minute detail. They fear making a mistake; so they wait for the "perfect" opportunity, but such do not exist. It's like they're stuck: ready, aim, aim, aim, aim... At some point, if we're going to get something done, we have to begin. "Fire" already!

Some wise person said "if you have to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning." While I have no desire to eat a frog, the point is valid. Get the project you dread out of the way as quickly as possible. The reason for this is obvious: the longer we wait, the larger the problem becomes in our minds. It grows fangs and claws and hair and learns how to hit us where it hurts!!! As William James said, "Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task." Conversely, dealing with issues or challenges early gives us a sense of accomplishment that helps with whatever else we might face.

One thing that I've found helpful is developing the habit of prioritizing. Once I list my tasks for the day I place them in order of priority. I try to tackle the most important things first. The challenge, however, is to not wait for something to become a crisis before it makes it to our priority list. Developing the habit of doing the small things in a timely matter can prevent them from becoming larger and more urgent down the road. As Chip Ingram writes: "When you've procrastinated and have a week's worth of papers to file, twelve calls to return, several days' worth of homework or office projects to complete, and five loads of laundry to do, it's a little demotivating, isn't it?"

Once we push ourselves into that kind of a corner, it can be overwhelming to get out. What I've learned over the years, as I've found myself in those situations, is to "lean into it." A leadership principle that applies here is to "accept the pressure of the moment." Resist the urge to throw your hands up in the air and run in the other direction, or to simply curl up on the couch. Simply begin by starting with that which is in front of you. In establishing the discipline of doing it now you can save yourself from a world of problems later. As my mother always told me, "never put off until tomorrow what you could do today."

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Monday, August 15, 2011

"Do Your Own Dishes" - The Principle of Responsibility

This lesson is Part 3 of a 6 part series on making positive change in our lives. It's based, in part, on the book Good to Great in God's Eyes by Chip Ingram. I ran across a poem by Edna Wheeler Wilcox in one of John Maxwell's books. I liked it so much I still remember the gist of it years later. Here is part of it:

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people on earth today,
Two kinds of people no more I say.
Not the good or the bad, for it's well understood,
The good are half bad, the bad are half good.
No! the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, (and)the people who lean.

This writing is about responsibility, specifically, taking responsibility for our own lives. Many of us grew up with mothers who, regardless of the busyness of their own schedules, would be sure that all of the dishes in the house were washed and dried. A wise mother eventually teaches her children how to take responsibility and do their own dishes. Unfortunately, there are a great many people who, though well into adulthood, are still refusing to take responsibility for their own lives.

Some have grown quite proficient at the "blame game." It's not their fault that they forgot to pay the utilities bill; didn't see the stop sign; had teachers that didn't understand them, etc... ad nauseum. There are some who have accepted the role of victim, constantly bemoaning the fact that "life isn't fair" and that they never get a break. To be honest, I have played that card a few times in my life and understand the sentiment. But what I've learned is that it's simply not helpful.

There are a few things that we need to understand about life. First of all, as I said in the first part of this series: life isn't fair. Some people do seem to have more breaks than others. Some are born with wealthy parents who love them; others are born into poverty and abusive environments. Some breeze through school with healthy self-esteem; some struggle painfully at every level. Regardless of our lot in life, the principle of responsibility teaches that we must own up to whatever reality we face.

It is quite remarkable looking at a list of all of the great men and women of history who overcame great odds to make a difference. Sir Isaac Newton's father died before Isaac was born; his mother raised him in poverty. He went on to become one of the fathers of modern science and discovered the law of gravity. Benjamin Franklin was the 15th of 17th children and only had one year's formal education. Yet he taught himself 4 languages, science, finance, politics and much more and became a great statesman and author. There are legions of others. Conversely, the tabloids are full of failures who came from a life of privilege. I believe one of the key differences is the principle we're speaking of today.

If you want to make a difference in this world you have to be honest with yourself. As John Maxwell states, "no matter where you are, there you are." You might wish to start elsewhere, but that is not up to you. The truth is, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, if it's about you, it's your responsibility. What does this look like in real life?

You may have had a troubled childhood, with painful memories that have scarred and affected you deeply. I'm not minimizing anyone's pain, but there are two clear choices I see. You can wallow in that pain, allowing it to limit your progress and define your future, or you can choose to move through it, allowing it to make you stronger. Though it may not be your fault, it is still your responsibility. The effect of ignoring the problem may mean that your children, or others you love, pay the price, and an ugly cycle is repeated. Do your own dishes.

There are some incredible examples in the Bible of people who overcame horrible obstacles to make their mark on history, partly because they chose to view the events of their past through the lens of God's sovereignty. These examples include Joseph, sold into slavery by his own brothers, wrongfully accused, convicted and imprisoned, only to be eventually raised to the right hand of the Pharaoh of Egypt. You can see his positive perspective in his statement to his brothers once he reached the throne: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." (Genesis 50:20)

Believing that God loves you is one of the keys to being able to face up to our responsibilities. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." When you think you're facing more than you can handle, hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

The good news is that God hasn't left us alone. He will walk with us through whatever storms that life may throw at us. He will help us to redeem and even redefine our past. As Peter said, in 2 Peter 1:3 says, "His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness." You can choose to make the world a better place by what you do with what you have. Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution? Don't lean - lift!

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"Turn It Off!" - The Principle of Restoration

Part 6 of 6
Over the past week we’ve been going through a series focussed on how to make positive change in our lives. This is the conclusion of the series. Just before we get into it, let’s review.

Part 1: Put God First – The Principle of Priority
Part 2: Take Out the Trash – The Principle of Transformation
Part 3: Do Your Own Dishes – The Principle of Responsibility
Part 4: Write It Down – The Principle of Clarity
Part 5: Do It Now – The Principle of Inertia

Turn It Off – The Principle of Restoration. My wife and I just returned from a week-long vacation to Oregon a few weeks ago. As we were getting ready to leave I remember the stress and the pressure to get things done. There were plans to be made, messages to finish, a wedding to prepare for that would take place as soon as I got back. My wife had schedules to prepare and amend, lessons to plan, and many other stresses to cope with.

But once we got on the plane, we settled in, put on a movie, enjoyed the view out the window and thought about reconnecting with people we hadn’t seen in a long time. The week was a whirlwind of activity, talking, laughing, reminiscing and enjoying one another’s company. We didn’t intentionally set out to be renewed and refreshed but it happened, because we were able to turn off the work motor and give our minds and bodies a break. That’s the way that we are designed.

We live in a world that is constantly telling us to do more, go faster, hurry up, work harder, earn more,. And sometimes, those messages are true and good. God made us to be productive; there is a dignity and value in hard work and creativity. If we don’t have an outlet for those things there is something lacking in our lives. But the same God who created the world in six days set us an example by taking the seventh day as a day of rest.

He didn’t do that because He was tired; He did it in order that we would know that we should rest as well. In Exodus 20:8-11 as God was handing down the law to the Jewish nation through Moses, He said this: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” It is the fourth commandment.

The law was given as a part of the covenant agreement with God’s people, the Jewish nation. There is still a lot of discussion about what the law has to do with us who live on the other side of the New Testament. My purpose today is not to dig too deeply into that, but I will touch on it. The Bible tells us that Jesus came to fulfill the law and He also came to establish a new covenant with us – a covenant of grace. Paul wrote about the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16-17 – “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Hebrews 4 speaks about the Sabbath rest for the people of God and how that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ by His finished work on the cross. Because of what He did, we no longer have to “labour” in law-keeping in order to be justified in the sight of God and this includes the observance of the Sabbath. Jesus was sent so that we might rest in God and in what He has provided.

By saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), Jesus was restating the principle that the Sabbath rest was put in place to relieve man of his labours, just as He came to relieve us of our attempting to earn salvation by our works. We no longer rest for only one day, but forever cease our labouring to attain God’s favour. Jesus is our rest from works now, just as He is the door to heaven, where we will rest in Him forever. There is no other Sabbath rest besides Jesus. He alone satisfies the requirements of the Law, and He alone provides the sacrifice that atones for sin. He is God’s plan for us to cease from the labour of our own works.

There is nothing sacred about any particular day, either. The Old Testament Sabbath was Saturday. After Jesus’ resurrection, the early church changed the day of worship to Sunday, the first day of the week, likely in remembrance of the day that Jesus rose from the dead. But in Acts 2 and elsewhere we see that the early Christians also met on other days of the week. In our culture, for centuries, Sunday was set aside as a day of rest and worship because the vast majority of people were Christians and Sunday was when public services were held. Stores were not allowed to be open, there were no organized sports on Sunday, and most everyone took the day off work. I don’t think we’ve gained anything by changing that.

However, all that being said, the principle of restoration still applies in our lives, not as some kind of legalistic thing that we must do to win favour with God, not to make anyone feel guilty who has to work on Sundays, but as a practice that enables us to be refreshed and refocused on a regular basis. We’re not made to have the switch always set to “on.” John Ross Schroeder called the condition of our age “Hurry Sickness.” It’s to the point that many feel like a hamster on a wheel. They get on as a young adult and can never find the way off. But let’s look at what we see in the Biblical pattern.

We see, in the way that God has created nature, that there is an order to everything. The earth orbits around the sun every 24 hours and spins on its axis so that there is a day and a night. From the dawn of creation, the day has been for work and the night has been for sleep. Before electricity this was especially so. People would wake at first light to take advantage of the sun and they would sleep at night. Studies have revealed that, on average, we sleep 90 minutes less than our ancestors just 100 years ago. With the rise of the internet and satellite and cable TV, we’re sleeping 25 minutes less than we did even 10 years ago.

God also divided time up in chunks of seven days. There are seven days in a week – not 50. Our Creator knew that we have limits, and we need a break every seven days. You can manipulate that any way you want to, you can pretend that you’re invincible and work crazy shifts for weeks on end without a break, but eventually it catches up to you. We all need that break.

Time has become such a valuable commodity that we joke about wishing there were more hours in a day. I don’t wish that. I find that no matter how many hours there are in a day, I can fill them with busyness. What I need is wisdom to know how to manage those 24 hours properly. In Psalms 90:12 we read: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Alan Redpath, former pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, had a plaque on his wall that read: “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” So, time is important; it is a precious commodity. What do we need time for as it relates to our subject today?

Time to rest.
We need time to rest. It doesn’t matter who you are, how smart, how strong or how talented – you need times of regular rest. I have learned this the hard way in my own life. I know that many have joked that pastors only work one day a week, but I think you’d be surprised. There are times when I’ve allowed the demands of ministry to crowd out my schedule to the point where it seemed that days off were only a rumour. I’ve foolishly allowed myself to be stretched beyond where I could easily recover. It’s interesting that the time the board advised me to take off to recuperate some years ago was called a “sabbatical” – a time of rest.

Jesus, entrusted with the most important mission in the history of the world, regularly took time apart to rest. He also encouraged His disciples to do the same. In Mark 6:31 it says, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” We all need it. For you workaholics out there - Stop! It’s okay to take a break.

Time to recreate.
When we think of recreation we usually think of sports or outdoor activities – things that we do. What do they have to do with our well-being? Merriam-Webster defines the word “recreate” like this: “to give new life or freshness to.” Particularly for those of us who sit at a desk for a good portion of our day, it’s important to get out and do something that gets the motor running.

Looking back on our trip to Oregon, it’s amazing how many activities we packed into a short period of time, and how good it felt as we were doing those things. Recreation is literally the refreshment of one's mind or body after work through activity that amuses or stimulates. For some that may mean a long walk, for someone else it might be a good book or a puzzle; for others it might be strenuous physical activity, but it really does recreate us.

Time to reflect.
The late author Norman Cousins observed: "We in America have everything we need except the most important thing of all, time to think and the habit of thought." In a world that is chaotic and non-stop and where mindless entertainment is available 24/7, one of the most important things that we can do is to unplug from all of that and allow our minds some activity.

Taking some time apart allows us the space to really look at our lives. For a lot of people I know, the thought of that terrifies them. They have no desire to stop and consider the current state of things. It’s much easier just to keep running. What is going well in your life? Are your relationships healthy? Are you fulfilled? Are you growing? Are you happy with the direction you are headed? What problems are you facing? What can you do to face them and fix them? Pick your own questions.

Read good books that inspire and challenge you. Listen to good music that lifts and motivates you. Engage your mind in something challenging. It might hurt the first few times, but you’ll get over it.

Time to reconnect…
With Others. The final subject I want to touch on is the need to reconnect. It seems that the inevitable thing that falls through the cracks of our busy lives is relationship. We love our family and we love our friends, but in our busyness, we just don’t have time to keep those relationships healthy. But when we live on purpose, and by our priorities, we can change that.

God made us for relationship. Much of what Jesus shared in the Gospels was on the subject of relationships. He gave us the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The writers of the letters of the New Testament followed His lead. In Ephesians 4:32 Paul wrote: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” I have a list in my files of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament. It’s a lengthy list. “Love one another, bear one another’s burdens, care for one another, pray for one another…” The list is an extensive one.

It was John Andrew Holmes who said "It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others."

With God.
When we get back to the heart of the principle of the Sabbath rest, the underlying need is for us to remember our desperate need of God. We are so prone to forget Him. As the old hymn says, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” I wish I could write a song that captures that sentiment for this generation the way that one did in the 1700s. What’s the point? The point is this – if God is to be the priority in our lives and truly be the rock upon which we stand, we have to regularly take the time to re-center ourselves on that reality.

We need to take the time to read and hear His Word; we need to take the time to foster a relationship with Him through prayer; we need to take the time for corporate worship; we need to stop and focus our minds attention on Him: His Word, His will, His world. When we take the time to create an opportunity and an openness, God will speak to us. But we have to take the time. What has God been speaking to you about lately? If you don’t have an answer to that question, why not?

Some my find it odd that the last principle in a series on bringing about positive change is related to rest. How are we to change if we stop and rest? It has been my experience that when I live my life in proper balance, and take those breaks, I have the energy needed to take on those necessary changes. It is a part of God's plan and ongoing pattern for our lives.

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” – Psalm 46:10

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"Write It Down" - The Principle of Clarity

Part 4 of 6
We’re already at part four of a six part series about making positive change in our lives. Let me do a quick review:

Part 1: Put God First – The Principle of Priority
Part 2: Take Out the Trash – The Principle of Transformation
Part 3: Do Your Own Dishes – The Principle of Responsibility

You’ll notice, as we’ve progressed through this series that these principles we have laid down are building on each other. As we learn to really place God in that position of priority in our lives, our perspective begins to change; we start to see things differently. We also begin to see ourselves differently. We start to become aware of those things in our lives that actually get in the way of our accomplishing God’s will. We then can bring the junk in our lives to God, so that He can transform it into good stuff.

As we grow and change we’re able to take our place and assume our share of the responsibility in God’s Kingdom. We understand that each and every one of us is important in God’s plan and that, for everything to work properly, we all play a part. So now what? Where do we go from there? Proverbs 20:5 says “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”

In this essay we’re exploring how it is that we discern God’s will for our lives. In Habakkuk 2 we find a place where God has been revealing to His prophet things that are to come. Read what it says in verse 2: "Then the LORD replied: 'Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.'"

I believe that this provides us with a clue. There is a power in writing things down. It helps us to clarify what we truly believe. It gives focus to our intentions and even helps us to see where we’re wrong. It also helps us to remember in the dark times what God has showed us in the good times.

A few years ago I sat down and started looking at my values. I asked myself the question, what is it that I truly think is important? As I was preparing this series I went back and reviewed the list that I came up with. Here are some examples:
• I will place God first in my life.
• I will be a man of integrity.
• I will maintain a positive attitude.
• I will be committed to my family.
• I will be innovative in leading the church.
• I will be committed to personal growth.
• I will be committed to excellence.
• I will remember that everyone is someone for whom Christ died.

There are a few others, but you get the idea. I felt that writing them down helped me to clarify those things to which I was really committed. There were some things I thought were important, but when I began to try to put pen to paper I reconsidered. Seeing them in black and white made me realize they didn’t belong on that list. Some people have found it helpful to put each of these values on a 3” x 5” card that they carried in their car or kept in a place where they could refer to them often. It helped them to keep focus. Others have done this same exercise as a family, they’ve actually sat down as a family and written down agreed upon values. It reminds me of Joshua, who declared in Joshua 24:15, “But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” This list gave me a beginning point in developing a growth plan for my life. For each of those I then began to make a to-do list of things that could help me in those areas.

For example, under “I will place God first” I wrote these points:
• My definition of success is to find what God would have me do and do it.
• I will make it a priority to spend time alone with God daily for prayer and devotion.
• I will not neglect the reading of God’s Word.

These statements help me to refocus when life gets going too crazy. I revisit this and remind myself of what should come first and foremost.

I also use a personal planner. Part of that is because of my personality. I know that if I don’t write it down I will tend to forget it. I also know that writing it down and prioritizing it helps me to be more efficient. So, if you look at my planner, you’ll find that right near the top of the list each day is Prayer and Bible reading. Every day I will either be able to check those items off the list or be reminded that I need to pay more attention. This habit has helped me to develop other positive habits in my life.

Another thing that I have learned to use more effectively is a calendar. As soon as I make a commitment I put that on a calendar. Then I regularly review the calendar to see which of those items are going to require some advance work. I can then break those tasks down into steps and actually put them in my to-do list in the order they need to be done. One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. Break a large job down into many steps and any task becomes doable.

We look at the Biblical example of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. Nehemiah was a Jew living in captivity in Persia, now known as Iran. He had never been to Jerusalem because he was born a captive. Many years before, his ancestors had been carried away by the Babylonians when Jerusalem fell. The city walls and temple were destroyed.

Now generations later, some of the Jews had returned to Jerusalem and had begun to worship God again in the nation of Israel. But they were leaderless and confused. They didn’t know God’s expectations of them and were living far beneath God’s plan for them. But, remember, God always has a plan. He had prepared this man by the name of Nehemiah – he had been placed in the position of cupbearer to the king.

He heard about the situation in Jerusalem; that the walls were broken down; that the people were confused; that there were enemies all around them. And a very strange thing happened – Nehemiah’s heart began to break. Something took place inside the heart of a servant in Persia that would affect the nation of Israel hundreds of miles away. A lot of times in church we call this a burden or a calling.

God places a burden, a weight, on an individual and they know that they must do something. They may be sitting in a service, hearing someone talk or simply reading a magazine article about a place, a people or a need and they just begin to feel this overwhelming sense of responsibility. Anyone who’s done anything of eternal significance has felt this weight, this burden, this call.

You hear it represented in John Knox as he declared “Give me Scotland, else I die.” You hear it in William Booth as he said “While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight-I'll fight to the very end!” And here we see it in Nehemiah. It says in Nehemiah 1:4, “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”

So here’s the question. How does a servant cupbearer in Persia, who has never been to Jerusalem, rebuild the walls of that city hundreds of miles away?

How does a simple preacher in Scotland change the spiritual climate of a nation? How does an evangelist in England build a worldwide organization, the Salvation Army, which is synonymous with compassionate ministry? He does it one bite, one step, at a time.

Nehemiah started with an audience with the king – he took advantage of what he had at his disposal, his relationship with the king. He asked for letters of safe passage (in other words, the king’s protection). Then he asked for enough materials to do the job. Once there he assessed the situation. Then he recruited his volunteers and set to work. He broke it down into steps, and for our sake, he wrote it down. In spite of opposition and challenges, the wall was built.

Do you want to know God’s will for your life? Here are some keys:
• Immerse yourself in the Word of God – this is primarily how God speaks to us.
• Spend time in prayer – this is how God molds our hearts.
• Learn your spiritual gifts. The Bible tells us that all Christians have some.
• Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Be faithful.

Once those habits are established in your life, answer these questions:
• What do you cry about?
• What do you laugh about?
• What do you dream about?

The answers to those questions will go a long way in helping to reveal your passions and discerning God’s will for your life. Writing down what you receive will help to bring clarity of purpose and enable you to focus on that which is most important. As someone said, "It's only a dream until you write it down, and then it becomes a goal."

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all our ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5-6

Related Articles:
Developing Great Habits
Seven Keys For A Better Life
Think For Yourself! Don't Get Stuck in a "Filter Bubble"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Take Out the Trash" - The Principle of Transformation

Part 2 of 6
This series is based on the last chapter of the book “Good to Great in God’s Eyes” by Chip Ingram. The first subject dealt with the principle of priority – “Put God First.” We looked at the reasons why God has to be at the center of any meaningful change in our lives.

Today I'm writing about taking out the trash, or the principle of transformation. How is it that we can be changed from the person that we’ve been into the person we want to be? Is change even possible? Many people would say that it’s not. You are who you are and you’re stuck with it.

What is it that makes us what we are, anyway? Is it genes? Is it our upbringing? Is it the experiences we’ve had; the trauma we’ve endured or the examples we’ve seen? The truth is that it’s all of these things and none of these things. All of these have a bearing on the kind of people we’ve become. But I can show you people who’ve been raised in the same home, been through the same things, had the same type of upbringing and yet are radically different. So, what is it?

I believe that much of who we are is based upon what we do with what we’ve experienced, and that is dictated by the way that we think. The principle of transformation comes straight out of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” There's a negative command in that verse that literally says to stop being conformed, or molded, to this world. Quit allowing the world system — its ideas, images, and values — to shape who you are. Get the trash out of your life.

This world and its systems have a powerful affect on the way that we think. If we’re not careful, we just gradually absorb messages over time and begin to accept them without thinking about whether or not they’re true. What are the lies that we believe? Many women believe that they have to look like Barbie; that they will never be good enough for someone to love them; or that they’re stupid, or fat and ugly; or that they are worthless or a lousy mother or wife. Many men believe that they will never amount to anything; that they’re a failure; that money or work equal love; that no matter what they do they’re not good enough.

That message might have come from the media or from a family member, from our friends or from a misguided teacher. It probably came from someone who didn’t intend to give you that message, but it’s there just the same. No matter what you do, that message that is recorded in your mind just keeps cropping up, keeping you from moving forward.

It’s not just those personal messages either, there are also truth claims that people accept, without thinking, that have a way of cluttering up our minds and confusing us. These are cultural assumptions that go unchallenged, and often leave us believing a lie. A famous Canadian example is the unimpeachable value of tolerance. Now I’m all for tolerance, by the original definition. What it used to mean was that you tolerated people who were different from you and allowed them to practice their beliefs in freedom. But what it’s grown to mean in today’s culture is quite different. Today any questioning of the truth claims of another person or religion makes you intolerant. A fall-out from that is that a great many people have lost the ability to think critically; to use reason. One of the lies I hear repeated often is that all religions are basically the same. That is not even close to being a true statement, but many accept it as fact.

So what are we to do with the messages in our minds that don’t belong; that are actually harmful? How do we change this? The first thing we need to do is to stop allowing the wrong sources to program our thinking. It’s the first rule of holes: when you’re in one – stop digging.

The second thing we need to do is to replace the lies with the truth. In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” In the Greek, it’s far more expressive. It basically says that he abolished and did away with the childish thinking.

In a modern analogy, it’s like going through all of the old files on your computer and getting rid of the unnecessary ones that you never use anymore. There are some files that just take up space and slow the system down. There are others that can actually be harmful, like viruses, and the longer you allow them to hang around, the more damage they cause you. They can sometimes make the whole system crash. GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

A lot of people can identify the thinking that has gotten them messed up, but don’t know how to change it. In the second part of Romans 12:2 Paul tells us how. Remember, the first part is a negative command, basically to stop allowing the world to force you into its mold.

That's followed by a positive command to allow God's Word to renew and transform you — to cause a metamorphosis, the same word used for the transfiguration of Jesus. Grammatically, this command is in the passive voice; God does it, but we allow it. We let our minds be transformed from the inside out so we can be people who prove and experience the will of God. Our lifestyle begins to demonstrate God's will — that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Chip Ingram shares a story that illustrates the reality in far too many lives: "In my first pastorate in Kaufman, Texas, an older man who looked like he'd been through a lot came to church. His shirt was dirty, he looked and smelled like he hadn't taken a bath in six months, and he was hungry. We gave him some food, and the next week he brought his wife, who was in just as bad a condition as he was. After the service, they said they needed some money for electricity and other necessities."

"The church had a fund to help people, so I offered to go out to their house and visit. Theresa and I drove out in the country and found a house that didn't look very bad at all. A couple of horses and about five or six dogs in the yard all looked pretty healthy. But when we entered the house, I almost threw up from the stench. Garbage was on the floor, a container of something that had spoiled was left open, and cans of cat food for the nineteen cats running around the kitchen were spread out everywhere. The shades were pulled down, and he, his wife, and a very elderly woman sat in near darkness. I wondered how they could tolerate such nasty conditions, but when people live around trash long enough, they get accustomed to it. It starts to seem normal. We get used to a nauseating stench if we breathe it long enough."

I find that there are a lot of people like this. The mess that they're in has become "home." They know, at least on some level, that it's not good, but they have been there for so long that the possibility of change is foreign to them. God specializes in changing lives and giving fresh starts. He's prescribed clear directions for us - "be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds."

The first step on almost anyone's list is to admit that we have a problem. Once we understand that and identify the lie that we've been believing, we need to counteract it with the truth. It was Jesus, who said in John 8:32, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Here's a sensitive question - what is it in your life that needs to change? What are the habits, lies, and attitudes that you need to take to the curb? There may be more at stake than you realize. For some, the decisions you make can not only improve your life, but the lives of those around you. Some lies (and some sins) are generational. Someone started it, and someone needs to end it. Let that someone be you.

As J. Michael Straczynski said, “People spend too much time finding other people to blame, too much energy finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.”

Related Posts:
“Put God First” - The Principle of Priority
Developing Great Habits
Who I Am Makes A Difference
Are You Listening?

Friday, August 12, 2011

“Put God First” - The Principle of Priority

Pt. 1 of 6
I’m starting a new series today to help those of us who want to get traction in our lives for positive change. I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when it just seemed like I got stuck. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. I maybe made some bad decisions, I hesitated when I shouldn’t have and missed an opportunity, or maybe I just got caught up in the ebb and flow of life and ended up where I hadn't intended.

So, how does that change? How do we create enough momentum to do what is necessary? That’s what this series is about. It’s about how to get back to that vital relationship with God, it’s about cooperating with the grace that God extends to us so that we can become all that we’re intended to be. It’s about adjusting the trajectory of our lives so that we’re headed in the right direction.

In Chip Ingram’s book, Good To Great in God’s Eyes, he mentions 6 habits that help us to cultivate God’s grace in our lives. I’m going to be building this series off of those six habits. I think you’ll find that if you apply these to your life, things will start moving in the right direction.

The first habit to put in place is the subject of this article: Put God First. It’s also called “The Principle of Priority.”

In Matthew 5-7 Jesus gives his most famous teaching called “The Sermon on the Mount.” In that message He speaks to His followers about what life ought to be like for those of us who are a part of the Kingdom of God. I’ll just define that term before we go any further.

A very simple definition is this: anywhere that God reigns is the Kingdom of God. According to the Bible, one day everything will be brought into the Kingdom of God, but for now, you and I choose whether or not we want to be included. Right now God’s Kingdom co-exists with the kingdom of this world. Sadly, many people believe that they are a part of the Kingdom of God because they go to church or because they’re “good people.” But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus asked a question in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” That’s the priority question. When you call someone “Lord” or “King” what you’re implying is that they are in charge.

As Jesus was teaching the disciples how they ought to pray, in the Lord’s Prayer, He started out like this: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy will be done; thy kingdom come…” It’s actually a prayer of surrender. It’s a prayer that acknowledges that we’re not God. Later in that same chapter, He tells us to stop spending our time worrying about everything but, instead, to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

Let me talk about why this habit of putting God first is so important.

God is God, and you’re not.
That seems like an obvious place to start, but it’s not all that obvious to a lot of people. When we make this statement, what are we really saying?

Firstly, we’re recognizing that God is all-powerful and we’re not. There’s nothing that God cannot do, but there are all kinds of things that we can’t do. That’s the whole point of Matthew 6:33. There are so many things that are outside of our control, but nothing is outside of God’s. I used to worry a lot. I used to spend a lot of time thinking about what might happen if… That kind of thinking didn’t get me anywhere but depressed.

Over the years I’ve learned that the Apostle Paul was dead on when he wrote Philippians 4:6-7. He said: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Acting on these verses is an acknowledgement that God is in charge.

Secondly, we're recognizing that God is good.
A lot of people have a hard time with this statement. Your life may have been filled with hardship and difficulty. Perhaps there are many times when you’ve thought to yourself, or even yelled out loud that LIFE ISN’T FAIR. That’s true – it isn’t. In fact, the Bible makes it very clear that life isn’t fair. If you read through the Bible, you’ll find the very clear teaching that each of us are born into a world that is rocking and reeling. Most other parts of the world have a clearer picture of this than we see in Canada, where problems are usually hidden behind a fa├žade, but they’re there just the same.

The question to be asked is, where did all these problems, this evil, even, originate? In the very beginning we see that it started when mankind rebelled against God and decided that we could run our lives better on our own than under God’s leadership. A very brief review of the daily news should tell you how that’s going. By our own disobedience, we introduced a storm of pain and trouble into the world that continues today. Jesus Himself said in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” You can’t live life to the full until you deal with the thief who’s trying to destroy you, and you can’t deal with Him on your own. Jesus came to give us life.

Jesus also said in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” What is He saying? He’s telling us that life is hard. There will be challenges and hard times that each of us will face. But in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves, He will be there for us if we invite Him.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” This is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, speaking to us. He’s telling anyone who will listen, “you’re not alone.” God is here, and God is good. He backed up His words by laying down His life on a cross to pay the price for all of our sin and disobedience. He said there is no greater love than when a man lays down his life for his friends: and then he did it. God is good.

Thirdly, we’re recognizing that God has a plan for each of us.
God knows you. He knows you more than you know yourself. Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12 tells us that “…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” For some people that’s comforting, for others it’s terrifying. There are no secrets with God.

In Psalm 119 we find that God “knit us together in our mother’s womb.” In Jeremiah 29:11 it says: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I could take you to Scripture after Scripture that speaks of the great care with which God made you. He knows how many hairs there are on your head. He knows your gifts, your talents and abilities. He knows what fires you up and what brings you down, and He knows the very purpose for which you were created.

You see, God’s plan for you fits in with His plan for the world. To each of us, God extends an invitation to join Him in His plan of redemption, the very reason that Jesus Christ came to this world. For some, that means full-time ministry. For most it means serving Him in whatever secular vocation to which they may have been called. It means serving Him by raising our families with integrity and modelling within our communities what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It means living our lives to enhance God’s reputation in this world. How does that look?

It means that we recognize that Christ wants to live in and through us. When we receive Him He comes and lives in us by His Holy Spirit. As we cooperate with Him, we start to see incredible things begin to happen. He begins to make changes in us if we let Him. Even over the past few weeks I’ve had new Christians come to see me, so excited at how God answers prayer. They invite Him into their lives and each morning they welcome Him to have His way. I try to do this every day.

What I find is that God opens doors of opportunity for me that I could not have opened for myself. I often find myself with what I call “Divine appointments,” times when I run into people at places or times that are improbable but reflect God’s perfect timing and sovereignty.

This principle of priority is really all about a very simple question: who is in charge of your life? For most people, the answer to that question is easy: it’s my life and I’m in charge! I get to decide what I want to do and where I want to go and how I want to live. The problem with that view is very simple: it’s wrong! It ignores all of the truths that we’ve listed. It ignores the fact that God is all-powerful and we’re limited. It ignores the fact that God is good, and we’re flawed. It also ignores the fact that God knows us better than we know ourselves and has a plan for us. Proverbs 14:12 tells us: “There is a way that appears to be right,
but in the end it leads to death.”
Jesus, at the end of His Sermon on the Mount, compared our lives to building a house. He said that there are some people who hear what He has to say, but do what they want anyway. Those people are like someone who builds a big beautiful home on the sand. It looks great. But one day a storm comes. The winds lash at the house and the waters swirl around the base, washing away the sand. The house collapses with a great crash because there is no firm foundation. Their life’s work is destroyed.

The other group of people hear what Jesus has to say and apply it to their lives. Those people are like someone who builds a beautiful home on solid rock. For those people as well, one day a storm comes. The winds and rain beat against the house but the house doesn’t move. It stands strong because of the firm foundation. They may have some minor repairs to do, but they’re still standing.

The principle of priority means that you recognize that God is first and He has the right to tell you what to do. It means you pray, like Jesus, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I’ve found that when my life starts to get crazy, often it’s because I’ve gotten too busy and have neglected to put God first. I’ve let my relationship with Him slip and I end up finding myself trying to accomplish things on my own. That gets me nowhere in a hurry. So I have to stop and re-center myself. I come back to Him and acknowledge that I’m not God – He is. I might think I know what I’m doing, but He actually does know what He’s doing. I need to put Him first again. If you need to make some positive change in your life, the best way to start is with a decision that, as of today,God is first.

Related Articles:
Developing Great Habits
What To Do When You Fail
What have you got to lose?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Developing Great Habits

I recently finished reading Chip Ingram's book: "Good To Great in God's Eyes."  I'm going to build off a section he included in his last chapter. It's on the subject of change.

Each of us, at some point (or many points) sees the need for change. John Maxwell says that "People change when they hurt enough that they have to, learn enough that they want to, or receive enough that they are able to." I've tried to be one of those people who learn enough that I want to change. I'm trusting that there are a few more people like that out there; that's the reason for this series.

I don't think that many people understand the power of habits. As has been said many times, in many ways: first we form our habits; then our habits form us. You are, in fact, what you repeatedly do. I have many habits, some good, some... not so much. I happen to like routine. So, for me, after showering and dressing, I've made it a habit of spending time reading my Bible and praying to start my day - a good habit. Then I hop in my car and it drives itself to Tim Horton's where I pick up my coffee and a bagel - not as good.

I've spoken to many people who have easily identified the bad habits they have, but who have either no desire or no power to break them. Why does it matter? As Chip says in his book, "We need to grasp the fact that the sum of our good and bad habits will dictate who we will become. The kind of man or woman you will be in five, ten or twenty years from now will be determined by the habits you have today." If my habits have that kind of power, I want to make certain that they're good ones; not bad ones.

Thomas a Kempis, the 15th century mystic, hit on a great truth; that "Habit is overcome by habit." What he meant is that simply quitting a bad habit won't do. It leaves a void that, if not dealt with, will usually result in the resumption of the bad habit at some point in the not too distant future. We see examples of this every year at New Years. We make resolutions, then quickly abandon them, largely because we try to change by sheer will power. Few succeed.

Scientific studies vary on how long it takes to change a habit. The estimates vary anywhere from 18 days for some to two months or more for others. Understanding this can help us to change. If I think about the fact that, for the rest of my life I will no longer drink coffee, for example, the thought of that either can keep me from trying to break the habit or cause me to quit after a week or so. If however, I decide to replace my morning coffee ritual with a fruit smoothie, for example, and that I will do this every day for 30 days, I am more likely to find success and to make a permanent positive change in my lifestyle.

What we want is to make our habits work for us. One of the examples I often think of is Charles Swindoll, a prolific Christian writer and pastor. When he was a young man he had a desire to write and believed that it was something he should do. The problem was that he could never find the time in his busy schedule to write. Because it was a priority, he determined to find a way to do this. He made a commitment that he would arise one hour earlier each day and that he would give that hour to writing. This commitment resulted in a lifelong habit that has seen Charles, now in his late 70s, produce more than 70 books, including at least 12 Gold Medallion Award winners.

Not all of us will have such dramatic success as Charles Swindoll. However, I believe that each of us can use the power of habit to our advantage instead of to our detriment. Why not start by identifying one habit in your life that you would like to change, and one good habit that you would like to replace it with. Over the next few days I'll be writing a six-part series on "How To Make Positive Change" based on Chip's book. I hope you find it helpful.

Related Articles:
Seven Keys For A Better Life
Think For Yourself! Don't Get Stuck in a "Filter Bubble"
I Love Me!