Friday, November 23, 2007

The Kingdom is advancing, one "fist pound" at a time

A few weeks ago, Will Dungee (a friend and a pastor at my church) and I went prayer walking in a part of Glenwood that had been hopping with drugs and recent violence (someone had been robbed and then shot and killed at a convenience store in that area). Our hope was to pray over the neighborhood and also to talk with folks there and ask them how we could pray for them and see where the Lord might take it from there. Eventually we happened upon “Rick”, who was hanging out with a couple of other guys and appeared to be concluding some sort of deal involving either bootleg CD’s, drugs, or both. I suggested we go talk to him, and Will agreed, and so I practically ran up to "Rick" (I didn’t know him at that point) while Will walked much more coolly behind me. We struck up a conversation, during which we learned that his mom was an evangelist, that he wouldn’t consider himself a Christian because of how he was living, that he had been shot at least once, and that he figured that each of us is supposed to be the best we can be at what we are doing – if you are a Christian, be the best one you can be; if you are a dealer, be the best one that you can be (seriously). We asked him how we might pray for him, and he said just to ask God to let him live another day (which honestly seemed pretty generic), and so we did that and went on our way. I wasn’t sure I would see him again, especially since my prayer walks in Soflo (South Florida Street) were not a regular part of my week.

About a week or two later I was walking my dog Joe around the block and was passing by a different convenience store that is notorious for shady folks hanging around outside. As I passed by a car parked on the street, I look in and who do I see but "Rick" ! So I stopped and we did the whole “fist pound” thing (if you’re not from the ‘hood like me, you might not be as hip as me on that {sarcasm}). The first time we met, "Rick" had guessed that I didn’t live in Glenwood, and so on this meeting, I asked him what he was doing in my part of the ‘hood (neither of us took me seriously as I said that). Then I told him that it looked like God did answer prayers. He looked confused for a moment, and I reminded him that we had prayed that God would let him see another day, and well, here he was. He smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s right,” and I could tell that something flickered inside, the part of him that was created to know God and connect to Him.

That was the extent of our conversation, and as I walked away, I couldn’t help but think that I had just taken part in a Kingdom moment. Will and I meeting "Rick" had transformed him in my eyes. I normally would have ignored him, not even noticed him on my walk with Joe, or just dismissed him as a punk dealer. But because I had a relationship with "Rick", I saw him that day, and so we talked again. I think it also transformed me in his eyes. He normally would have ignored me, once he saw I wasn’t interested in buying, not even noticing me on my walk, dismissing me as a rich white guy. But because he knew me on some level, he saw me, and so we talked again.

The kingdom is advancing, one "fist pound" at a time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Let's talk Christmas music!

So I have held off as long as I could and have inaugurated my Christmas music listening tonight with Andrew Peterson's album Behold the Lamb of God. So to celebrate, I thought I might list my top five Christmas albums (#1 being most favorite, but #2's a favorite, too, just not as much favorite), and then invite my legions of loyal readers to share your lists or comment on mine. I'm always looking for new music, so show me the way!

5) Harry Connick, Jr When My Heart Finds Christmas - This album takes me back to some good ol' days when I was at Carolina, and I just continue to enjoy it year after year.

4) Martha's Trouble Christmas Lights - I love how mellow and soothing Jen Slocumb's voice is. I actually listen to their rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful year-round on my "Relax" playlist in iTunes.

3) Ed Cash, Bebo Norman, Allen Levi Joy! - These three guys are really talented musicians and singers, and they really do have joy on this album as they perform many classic Christmas hymns. Plus, their original songs are super, and it's just a cool blend of three unique voices.

2) Elf: Original Motion Picture Sound Track - Elf is definitely my favorite Christmas movie, and this soundtrack has some awesome version of Christmas classics, including Brian Setzer's "Nutcracker Suite", and Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel singing "Baby It's Cold Outside."

1) Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God - This is an amazing original CD which tells the story of Christmas beginning in Exodus and moving through the Gospels. The songs stand alone, but are meant to be listened to as a whole body of work. All of the songs are originals, and in true Andrew Peterson form, the lyrics are profound. One of the highlights is "Matthew's Begats" which is simply the geneology of Jesus sung to an upbeat tune. If you have the chance to see this concert in person, I would take it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

All I needed to know about margin I learned from my four-year-old (eleventh in a series)

From my wife's blog:

The other day as I was having a quiet time, Eliza asked me to do something with her. Used to being interrupted, I said, "Not right now, I'm spending time with Jesus. When I'm finished talking with Jesus then we can play." Her response was, "I pray sometimes too, Mommy." I said, "Really, when do you do that?" Thinking she was talking about prayer time before bed or at the dinner table. But she answered, "Well, I just close my eyes and bow my head and pray to God alone in my room." I said, "What do you pray about?" "I just sit quiet and pray, Mommy." "I know, but what do you talk to God about when you pray?" "Nothing, Mommy, I just sit quiet and listen to God."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Psalm of Margin (tenth in a series)

You know, it seems like the only time I ever hear Psalm 23 is at funerals. But is that all it’s good for, to remind us of God in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death? It has become such a somber Psalm to me, repeated by rote.

But as I have grown in margin, I am finding great comfort and margin from this short oldie-but-goodie.

The Lord as our shepherd gives us hope that it’s not all up to us. There is someone greater than ourselves looking out for interests, pastoring us. There is a roominess in knowing that with God as our shepherd, we shall not want. Even in the midst trouble, of things not looking all right, of financial questions, God says that He is there for us with protection and presence and provision. God not only wants us to eat and to move, but also to rest, and as our shepherd, He loves us enough to make us lie down because He knows our need for rest more than we do. He leads us to green pastures and quiet waters, simple evidence of His goodness and love.

And what has stood out to me over anything else in this psalm has been, “He restores my soul.” Our souls are our mind, will, and emotions, and this verse reminds us that God doesn’t just desire for us to have physical provision and rest, but He cares about our inner life as well. He wants to redeem our ways of thinking about Him, restoring our mind. He wants to heal the ways we feel about ourselves and our circumstances, restoring our emotions. He wants to transform our choices to reflect a trusting, love relationship with Him, restoring our wills.

Backing all of this up is the Lord’s goodness and mercy, following us, urging us on towards our good home with the Lord. In the midst of our messes, in the midst of our forgetting, there is a quiet assurance that goodness and love will follow. And we are reminded of our future home with the Lord forever. Knowing that our future is secure gives us freedom and margin in the present to stop striving so hard.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down. He leads me. Surely goodness and love will follow me. This is not a somber psalm. It is a psalm of confidence that allows us to take a step back from our hurry and our efforts at self-provision and self-protection, allowing us to make room for margin.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Simple steps toward financial margin (ninth in a series)

1) Make a budget 2) Establish an emergency fund 3) Pay off debt

Make a Budget: One of the best defenses against marginless finances and one of the best ways to ensure that we can give generously to God’s work is simply to have a budget. In fact, I don't know how people manage their money and have funds to give without having a budget. Having a plan for where your money is going before you even get it and knowing where you are spending your income allows you to establish margin from the get go. If giving/tithing is a priority for us, then rather than waiting to see if there is anything left at the end to give, we ought to make “Giving” a line item in our budget (perhaps THE line item) and adjust our "want-to" spending around it. Diane and I have determined a percentage that we want to give, and so we adjust our giving percentage-wise to the amount of income that comes in.

We use two tools to help us budget. One is a simple excel sheet on which we list every conceivable area of spending. There are line items for personal spending money for me and Diane, money set aside each month towards Christmas presents, vacation, and car repairs, money for clothes for our kids and more. We do a "zero-balance budget", which means that we have a place to put every dollar that is coming in, even if that place is "extra funds."

The other is an online program called mVelopes ( The way that mVelopes works is that it allows you to put money from your bank account into virtual “envelopes” so that you know where every dollar is going. So when you use your debit card at Food Lion, for example, mVelopes downloads that transaction from your bank account. Then you drag and drop that into your envelope for “grocery store” and it subtracts that amount from what you budgeted for the month.

This system enables you to budget for many different areas of life, it tracks every dollar that you spend, and it helps you know when to say when. For example, when you have used up all of your “eating out money”, your envelope is at $0 and you know that it’s time to pack your lunch for the rest of the month. For us, mVelopes has been nothing short of amazing, and I would highly recommend the free, 30-day trial you can get online.

An emergency fund helps with margin because if you know that you have $1,000 set aside for nothing but Murphy’s Law, it makes things like a busted radiator ($600 for my 1995 Honda Civic, I found out last month) be nothing more than a blip on the radar. It’s covered. Financial advisor Dave Ramsey suggests that after paying all of your “have-to” bills (including minimum balances on credit cards), putting all extra money towards building a $1,000 emergency fund that you DO NOT TOUCH is a necessity for margin. Having that margin allows for a measure of peace in times that could easily feel like crisis.

The Debt Snowball: Once that emergency fund is established, if you have non-house debt your extra money should go towards the principle of your lowest amount owed. Then when that debt is paid off, take its minimum payment and apply that, with any extra each month, to the principle of your next lowest debt, and so on. This is what Ramsey calls the “debt snowball.” Eliminating debt removes some of the “have-to” payments and allows us to give more and save more. It’s also wise to not incur further debt, so for example, don’t buy a more expensive car than you can afford to pay off immediately (or within a few months).

Now, let’s say you have your $1,000, you are putting all your extra money into your debt, and then an emergency happens and you dip into your fund. Focus next on replenishing your emergency fund, then back to debt.

Diane and I have been following this 3-step plan for a few years, and we have reduced our non-house debt by over $12,000, and have experienced a great deal of financial peace and have seen our ability and desire to give increase. While we don’t have tons of room for all the “extras” that we desire, we have found our way to having joy in the financial margins.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Margin in Finances (eighth in a series)

Having margin is not just relegated to having time to relax and room for relationship. Financial margin is having some space between our income and our outflow, which allows room in our finances for giving, for saving, and for emergencies that inevitably come. This is another area where margin is key for us to have peace, and it’s an area where so many in our culture and in the Church are way out of whack.

It’s hard to have financial margin here in America. Advertisers are after us from the time we are pre-schoolers, telling us about one more toy or cereal that we can’t live without, and they don’t ease off as we get older. In fact the “toys” and “cereals” get more expensive, and the benefits that they promise seem more and more alluring, because they promise us beauty, status, happiness, sex, and fulfillment.

And so we are encouraged to live right up to our financial limits, spending every dollar as soon as we get it, and even to go beyond our limits, charging things on credit. We make choices to have payments and bills for things that we may or may not need, and spend a lot of time worrying about how to pay those bills or spend more time working in order to afford what we bought.

One of the costs of living this way is that our ability to participate financially in building God’s Kingdom is severely limited. Many times, in our heart of hearts we want to give more than we do, but there is just not room left when we add up what needs to go out plus the things that we want.

Another cost is that our time and attention is taken up by a focus on money, giving us less and less of those things to give to resting with God, being in relationship with others, and more. Financial stress is one of the leading causes of stress in America and is one of the leading causes of divorce. Such a premium has been placed on money, and it has been elevated to such a place of delivering hope and happiness that when we don’t have as much as we think we should, it can consume us.

But the Lord doesn’t want us consumed with money and worrying about that. Jesus said, “Why do you worry about clothes and food? Your Father knows you need those things. Seek God and His kingdom first, and everything else will fall into place.”

Financial margin gives us room for that seeking. Next we will look at three simple ways to move towards financial margin.