Teaching Money Skills

Caleb (my oldest son) just graduated from high school and will be leaving soon to attend college. When he was in the 7th grade, Cherry and I opened a bank account for him. With this account he received a checking account, a savings account and a debit card

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(scared us to death…but because it was a minor account we had access and control over it…all from my smart phone). At that point we started giving him a monthly allowance and began teaching him how to manage money. Ever since the 7th grade Caleb has paid for his own clothes, shoes, school supplies, sports accessories, video games and activities with friends (We told him we would always cover mission trips, ministry events and ministry projects). When this adventure began I explained to him that he would receive an allowance at the beginning of each month. I also explained he would not get more money until the first of the next month.

It was challenging sometimes. He discovered quickly (like the rest of us) that he did not have enough money to purchase every item he wanted and attend every friend-induced activity. Several times he wasn’t able to purchase a “need” because he had already spent his money on a “want.” It was tough watching him go to school with worn-out shoes or pants that were too short because he had already spent his allowance. He would look at me with his puppy eyes as if to say, “Want you please help me?” I would simply say to him, “Are you enjoying the latest tunes on your playlist?” or “Did you make it to the fifth level of your new video game?” He got the point. He was a quick learner.

Teaching kids about money is one of the most important skills parents can offer their children. However, through this experience (and the ongoing lessons that are unfolding with our other 3 boys) Cherry and I have learned there is more to it than just adding, subtracting and keeping up with receipts. If we want our kids to have a Godly view of money and learn how to use it properly, they need to learn two attitudes and one habit. We also discovered good money practices are more “caught” than “taught.” In other words, we have to practice these skills as well as explain them. The old adage “do as I say and not as I do” does not work with money. Here are the three things we have to practice and explain:

1) Practice and Explain Contentment

It is impossible in our American culture to have healthy money management skills without learning contentment. Every commercial screams, “You deserve this…” or “You can’t be happy unless…” or “People will not like you until…” Our kids start hearing these messages early. Passing contentment to them is difficult because so few of us ever find it. Being content does not mean we don’t desire to do our best or seek to improve or replace worn out items. It doesn’t mean we are to be perpetually satisfied no matter what happens. So what does it mean?

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him [Jesus Christ] who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Practicing contentment begins with knowing Jesus Christ and allowing him to strengthen us whether we are in need or have plenty. Both situations can influence people to make bad choices (just read some headlines if you don’t believe that). Content people are able to see the big picture regardless of their financial status. What is the big picture? Here it is…don’t miss this. When we are in need, Christ will take care of us (we don’t have to worry or fear). When we have more than we need, Christ is trying to do something through us (Have you ever wondered why God allows people to have more than they need? Does he really want us to have continual stuff upgrades just because we can?). People who learn this secret lean on Christ and use his power to navigate either situation. it is a hard attitude to teach our children unless we as parents are willing to practice it and explain it. If we are financially content, then our kids can easily see what comes next.

2) Practice and Explain Generosity

Content people are not reluctant to be generous. Most people think they would be more generous if they had more wealth. However, generosity is not linked to our bank accounts. It is linked to our contentment. Kids are generally more content when they are young (before they begin to understand the “haves” and “have-nots” of the world); therefore, they tend to be more naturally generous. I remember one time our church was taking up an offering to combat world hunger. Each child was given a plastic rice bowl piggy bank and asked to fill it with spare change. Caleb came home, emptied his Yogi Bear piggy bank, filled his rice bowl and asked for another rice bowl because he had change left over. It did not bother him at all to give everything he had away. How could he do that? Because he was completely content. He knew he would be taken care of and he knew he had more than he needed. Being generous seemed like the only natural thing to do.

As we get older and “wiser?” we loose the ability to be that carefree because we have financial obligations. Jesus taught the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth would “choke” the very truth of God’s word from our hearts. (Matthew 13:22) We as parents have to push back against the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth or we will not be generous. And if we are not generous, our teens won’t be generous either.

I’m not the first person to do this, but on several occasions while eating out at a restaurant, I would ask the boys to pick someone in the room and we would anonymously pay their bill. It was always fun because they would really get into it. My sole purpose for doing this was to model generosity and have a discussion about it. This is not the only way to do it. Cherry and I have done other things too, but the point is that our kids need to see us practice and explain generosity. I can’t tell you how proud I’ve been of Caleb (or one of the other boys) when I’ve seen him practice generosity on his own. It makes me throw my chest out and walk a little taller.

Content people practice generosity and generous people generally practice this next habit.

3) Practice and Explain a Budget

We may practice generosity spontaneously, but it is a budget that allows us to be spontaneous. Contentment and generosity are attitudes we display in financial decisions. A budget is a habit we develop to give us a plan with our finances. The very first time I gave Caleb his monthly allowance I explained a budget by using this simply formula. I told him, “Give 10% of your allowance to the Lord. Put 10% of your allowance into savings. Learn to live off of 80%.” For months I told him this…over and over again.

Giving to the Lord is the most important financial decision a person can make. Most think I can’t afford to give to the Lord. I’ve learned I can’t afford not to give to the Lord. The most popular verse in the bible is John 3:16. That verse starts with these words: “For God so loved the world that he GAVE…” I think we are most like God when we are giving. He is constantly giving to us and the first person I need to give to is Him. It shows I trust Him, I love Him, I obey Him and I am thankful for His care of me. I explained to Caleb early that I give to the Lord, and because of that, we have always had what we needed. I simply dared him to try it.

I also explained that he needed to take 10% of his allowance and put into his savings account. Money in a savings account does two things. First, it allows us to have the freedom to be generous. Second, it frees us to take care of needs that pop up unexpectedly (car repairs, clothes for a special event, phone replacement, etc.)

Last, I emphasized learning to live on 80%. People who live on 80% don’t have credit card problems. They don’t live paycheck to paycheck. They learn to live within their means and they’re lives are less financially stressed. If you don’t believe this formula works, I dare you to try it…that is if you can. Many people are so financially strapped that even the thought of following this plan creates a sleepless night. And that is exactly why I started teaching it to Caleb when he was in the 7th grade. I don’t want him to have sleepless nights when they can be avoided.

What is Sin?

I have been reluctant to write about this. The title alone can create the feeling we have when hearing a dentist’s drill in our mouth. No one wants to talk about sin. It can be offensive, come across as judgmental and make us feel bad. YUCK!

Generally, two thoughts occur when the topic of sin comes up. First, a person who goes to church (or used to) thinks, “I know what sin is…we don’t have to talk about it.” The other thought, which comes to those who have never been to church (or used to go) is “Great…here is someone who is going to judge the way I am living my life.” It’s unfortunate these thoughts fill our brain when sin is mentioned because it keeps us from hearing about one of the most important spiritual topics that exists. Sin, and our understanding of what it is and what it does, is the one thing that will determine our ability to interact with God.

So, before I lose you…let’s get to it. What is sin? The answer has 3 parts.

1. To sin is to miss the mark.

It sounds pretty harmless, but imagine an archer shooting an arrow and missing the bull’s eye. Literally, this is what it means to sin. God has an intended target for every thought, attitude and action of our lives. Let that sink in…He has a bull’s eye for EVERY thought, attitude and action for every day of our life. When we miss hisMissingtheTarget bull’s eye, we sin. If my thoughts (and I’m talking about the things I dwell on…not fleeting non-sense) are not the plans he intended for me to have in the situation I am experiencing…well…I am sinning. The same holds true for my attitudes and actions. If we are not careful the reality of this truth can be overwhelming. Who can always do what God intended for them to do in their thoughts, attitudes and actions? Who can be that good…that perfect? No one. And that is the point. The bible says, “For all have sinned.” (Romans 3:23) We have all missed the mark. This leads us to the second part of the answer.

2. To sin is to offend God.

It’s not that we are trying to do this on purpose. I don’t think anyone wakes up and thinks, “What can I do today to offend God?” Truth is most of us don’t think of God and his intended bull’s eyes for us. Instead, we think about what we want. We aim for the targets we are trying to hit. The problem with this: our targets are self-centered. We are ignoring our Creator and missing all of his intended targets. Sinning is more than just making a bad choice or hurting someone, it is ignoring your Creator. Paul wrote this about sin, “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) When we sin we earn death. Death in this verse does not mean “cease to exist.” It means “loss of intended purpose that can’t be restored.” Think of a light bulb that burnt-out-light-bulb-images-collection-medium-standard-screw-base-arbitrary-incandescent-lamps-overpowered-filament-lifehas burned out. The bulb does not cease to exist when the filament inside breaks or burns out. The bulb exists. It just can’t shine and no one can repair it. It has lost its intended purpose and it cannot be restored. Once we sin, our filament breaks and it cannot be repaired. No matter how hard we try we cannot make ourselves shine again. We have offended God with our sin. We have lost our purpose and the ability to ever hit one of his intended targets.

3. To sin is to enter into slavery.

Sin is addictive. It has more attraction than the combined pull of every addictive substance and deed in our society. Why? Because it comes from within us. It is in our core. It thrives on this entitlement: It is your life, therefore, do what you want. Once we begin to drink that poison and believe it is truth, we are hooked. And like any chained_hands_free_photo1-690x457other addiction, we have moments where we act like it is not in control, but we always default back to it. We get used to ignoring our Creator. Our nature becomes conditioned to only aim for the target we want. We become drunk on satisfying self. No one is immune to this. No one can escape its pull. Not even Paul, the man who God inspired to write much of the New Testament, could escape the pull of sin. Speaking of his personal struggles with sin he wrote, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” (Romans 7:14)

Wow! This is heavy stuff. It’s heavy because I know I’ve sinned. It brings your soul discomfort because you know you’ve sinned too. We have all missed the mark. We are all burned out light bulbs. We are all enslaved. Before we lose all hope, let’s go back to a verse I introduced earlier. I only shared part of it, but let’s look at the whole thing. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death (remember that part?), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sin keeps us from being able to interact with God, but God planned a way for us to get around it. His plan…the life, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His plan is a gift to us. Gifts can’t be earned or deserved. They can only be received and treasured. And, gifts reflect the heart of the Giver, which stirs our desire to know the Giver even more.

The verse says, “…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we read that we think eternal life is something that begins after we die, but in this verse it means eternal life begins the moment we accept the gift that came through Jesus. Have you ever taken a burned out light bulb to a repair shop? Nope. Those repairmen don’t exist. However, God’s gift of Jesus restores our light. Through Christ we can start hitting God’s intended purpose in our thoughts, attitudes and actions. We will never be perfect at it, but we will begin to have moments when we are doing exactly what God created us to do. And with time, as our faith grows, we will begin to string those moments together. Eventually, living by faith will become both our lifestyle and our challenge.

I have the privilege and the burden of being a spiritual leader. That means I have to talk about topics people find unpleasant (like sin) and challenge them to decide what they are going to do. To do nothing is a decision. I hope that is not your choice. Instead, I encourage you to accept God’s gift and let faith begin to grow.

A NOTE FOR PARENTS

The best place to define sin and discuss its outcome is at home with our children. Obviously, you want to use age appropriate language and communicate that God loves us even though we have sinned (a.k.a. He is not ticked off or angry with us because we have sinned). It is important for our kids to understand that when they sin they have not just disobeyed their parents, they have sinned against God. The danger and addiction of sin starts early, so the sooner they can grasp the concept of sin the better off they will be in turning away from it. I can’t stress this enough…find loving and affirming ways to discuss sin with your children. Never use God as a source of communicating your anger when your child misbehaves or makes a bad choice.

The Happier People

I’ve noticed something about people who go to church. Some experience more joy than others even when they are having similar problems. I often wonder why it is that way.

For instance, Jane and Mary go to the same church and both lose their jobs. They have encountered the same challenge, yet their reactions are very different. Jane prays and can’t sleep. Mary prays and has a peace she can’t explain. Jane comes to church and concern seems to shrivel her face. Mary comes to church with the same concern but a smile is on her face (not a plastic, phony smile but a natural expression of acceptance and trust). Jane urgently asks others to pray for her while Mary tends to be praying for people. Jane doesn’t have time to serve because she is looking for a job. Mary volunteers because she is in between jobs. Jane can’t be generous and give to the Lord, while Mary keeps giving because she can’t afford not to. The reactions are strikingly different. Maybe I notice this because I play the unique role of pastor in each person’s life.

Along with noticing these differences between Jane and Mary, I also notice some habits Mary possess and Jane is lacking. I think these 5 habits allow Mary to experience joy in the midst of her problem. Now don’t misunderstand me. Mary still experiences all the negative emotions and worries that Jane has, but because of these 5 habits Mary seems to have a different perspective; which allows her to have a different attitude and ultimately a different approach to the challenge.

5 Habits to Cultivate Joy

1) People like Mary strive to bring glory to God. They take seriously the command to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10) and then they do it. They are committed to putting into action what they discover pleases God. As a result, their attitudes…their thoughts…their actions bring a smile to God. They are committed to this habit when things go their way and when life is a struggle. As a result, their circumstances are secondary to their purpose. To put it bluntly…they are more concerned about pleasing God than themselves or anyone else.

2) People like Mary enjoy God’s gift of unity. Paul wrote in Ephesians, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Notice it says, “Make every effort to keep the unity” not “make every effort to create unity.” God provides unity for his people to keep. We don’t create it. Be humble, gentle, patient…bear with one another in love. These actions cannot be fulfilled when we barely know a person. We do these things with people we know and who know us. Those who practice this habit have figured this out. They are committed to sharing their lives with others and letting others share their lives with them.

3) People like Mary apply God’s Word to their life. They don’t just know what the Bible says. They attempt daily to practice what the Bible says. With every choice in life there are two paths: God’s way and some other way. Individuals who practice this skill read the word and apply it to their choices. James, Jesus’ half brother, said it this way, “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.”

4) Those striving to be like Mary are looking for ways to serve others. They don’t ignore themselves or their needs. They just don’t let self and personal needs dominate their life. They have learned the balancing act Paul describes in the letter to the Philippians, “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” While they are serving others (a.k.a. taking an interest in someone else’s needs) they are trusting God will take care of them. We church people call this ministry. “Ministry” is the church word for serving others in Jesus’ name.

5) Finally, people who are like Mary find a way to introduce Jesus to individuals their circumstances bring to them. Jesus’ last command before ascending to heaven was “go and make disciples.” The word “go” means “as you go.” In other words, individuals like Mary don’t wait for mission trips or service projects or Sunday morning to talk about Jesus. They communicate Jesus to others as their life unfolds…daily if possible.

I have observed this over the years. People like Mary have just as many challenges, problems, failures and disappointments as people like Jane. All the people like Mary…they are not exempt from pain. However, they are more balanced, happier people. I have multiple explanations for why some church attendees remain like Jane even though they’ve been attending worship services, conferences, mission trips and bible studies for years, but that will have to be for another blog. Really, that is not the important issue at hand. The question you need to answer is “Are you like Jane or Mary?”

 

The Other Cost of Obedience

I have been trying to obey Christ since high school (trust me, some days are better than others). Therefore, I am familiar with the idea that following Jesus costs me something. Because I’ve been doing this for a while, I am okay with this principle. I don’t always like it, but I am not put off by it anymore. I understand that when I follow Jesus in a real life situation, (which is not what I’m naturally wired to do) I’m going to have to give up a more natural response to obey Him in that moment. The “thing” I give up is the cost to obey Him. For example, there is the guy who ran the red light and almost plowed into me. I wanted to display my anger to him, but obeying Jesus means I don’t use hand gestures and words that might be natural in that moment. To obey Jesus means I forfeit the satisfaction of displaying my anger in an ungodly way. It is a small, petty example; but the principle remains: If we are going to obey Christ, it is going to cost us some “thing” in the moment.

The cause and effect described above is familiar to any person who is trying to follow Christ. This is not a new principle. However, we rarely discuss the other cost that comes when we commit ourselves to obeying Christ.

Let’s consider Simon of Cyrene. Are you familiar with this fellow? We don’t know much about him, but we do know he was a dad and he was in Jerusalem the day Jesus was being executed. The Gospel writer Mark introduces us to Simon with these words:

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (Mark 15:21)

We don’t know why he was in the city that day, but whatever his plans were they got changed. Not because he was doing anything wrong. Not because he changed his mind and wanted to do something else. His plans got changed because Jesus was being obedient. simon of cyreneHe was giving His life up in obedience to the will of the Father. And on that day, in that moment, Jesus’ obedience cost Simon. Simon was inconvenienced, separated from his agenda, and forced into an uncomfortable moment all because Jesus was being obedient. Not only did Simon not give permission for the moment, as far as we know, he did not even have a head’s up that it was coming. Simon’s memories of that day were forever forged and his life would not be the same.

We all understand the personal cost we endure when we choose to obey Jesus, but rarely do we pause to consider what it costs others around us. I remember when God was calling me to be the pastor of a church in California. At the time my family lived about 20 minutes away from my parents. That meant grandparents and grandkids could get together almost weekly…and they did. I was excited to obey God in the call and I was willing to pay the cost to follow. I recall sitting with my parents and sharing the news with them. Guess what the first words out of my dad’s mouth were? “You mean we are not going to get to see the boys grow up?” He did not say it with anger or disapproval. He said it with sorrow and loss. He was having a Simon of Cyrene moment. My obedience was costing him. I can’t apologize to my dad for that moment any more than Jesus could apologize to Simon. Obedience comes with a cost and sometimes the cost is paid by more than just the immediate follower.

What can we do with these moments? There is no way to undo them. However, two things can be done. First, when your obedience to God’s will costs someone else, greet their frustration and tears with gratitude, patience and understanding (especially if it is your spouse…they always pay a price when you follow God). Don’t minimize their pain by justifying that you are paying a greater cost (even if you are). That would be like Jesus looking at Simon and saying, “Put on your big boy pants and quit your groaning. I’m the one dying today.” Validate their discomfort and cry with them. Only use words when necessary.

Second, when the time is right, remind them of this truth. When we lose a comfort or a dream or close relationship because of obedience to Christ, we will gain it back with interest in this life and in the life to come. Jesus said it this way when talking to his disciples about the cost of obedience: “I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

When obeying Christ, there will always be trouble or sorrow or loss…some kind of cost. The cost will be paid by the follower and many times by those who are close to the follower. However, there is a promise of getting back what was lost in the act of obedience. Let that promise become your anchor when facing the storms of obedience.

God’s Car Seat

Everyday, moms and dads physically pick up their small children, strap them in a car seat and take them to various places. Sometimes their destination is a fun place like the park or the zoo. Other times the journey is to a place that might be uncomfortable or scary like the doctor’s office or Wal-Mart (Have you seen some of the people who shop at Wal-Mart?). No matter…the parent does not ask the kid’s permission when taking these little trips. It is just assumed the parent has the best interest of the child in mind and the child will just have to go. If it were not for the existing relationship between the parent and child, these little trips would be classified as abductions.

Imagine how it must feel for the child. She is sitting on the floor entertaining herself when dad walks in and lovingly takes her up in his arms. Her toys and imaginary play world is rudely interrupted by this bigger, stronger person. He is kind but, to be honest, is also inconsiderate. He says affirming words and has a big smile on his face, but because she is only 2 she doesn’t really understand everything he is saying. She did understand the word “go” and the word “no” when she pointed to remains of her play world left scattered on the floor. She understands she will not be alone, but she has no idea what the day holds as he straps her in to her car seat. For a moment she tries to resist and even begins to pout, but her dad just smiles and overpowers her futile attempts to leave her temporary restraints. The car cranks and begins moving. She has no idea where they are going. Even if her dad tried to explain, she probably would not understand. She doesn’t recognize most of the words he uses and his logic, no matter how hard he might try to explain, is just beyond her capability. She has a choice as they pull out of the driveway. She can scream and cry all the way on this mysterious journey or she can trust her dad and try to find something enjoyable in the ride.

Believe it or not, our relationship with the Heavenly Father is not much different at times. He may not physically sweep us off our feet, but He can certainly start a journey in our life without our permission. He may not strap us in a car seat, but He can allow circumstances to limit our options. And guess what? He is not obligated to always explain to us what is happening or where the journey is going to take us. Even if He did, we probably would not recognize all of His words or comprehend all of His thoughts. The Lord said it this way when speaking to the prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is not implying that He thinks and acts differently than we do. He is proclaiming that His thought process, His plans and His actions are better than ours.

It seems cruel doesn’t it? If not cruel at least unfair. God has the power to interrupt our life. He is bigger and stronger. He sees the world and our lives from a different perspective. He understands things and knows stuff that we don’t know. He uses a language we don’t always understand. His goals, objectives, agendas, and schedule just don’t make sense to us. His timing seems odd many days and when we are completely satisfied in the moment He decides to set us on a new adventure. It feels just like that little girl being strapped into a car seat.

When God moves this way in our life we have a choice. We can start kicking and screaming (most of us do this with our attitudes and habits) or we can trust God, believe He is good and start looking for the enjoyable moments in the journey. Admittedly, we don’t know where we are going. It could be one of the best adventures we’ve ever had, or it could be an uncomfortable life lesson we desperately need. The key to surviving these divine interruptions is trusting the character of the Father. If it were not for our enjoyment or for our correction, He would not have interrupted our life. We have to be okay not understanding what He is doing…and that is hard to do without an ever growing trust in Him. If we could understand everything God was doing then He would no longer be God.

Maybe you are on one of these journeys right now. If so, I encourage you to trust Him and be patient. As we grow in our relationship with the Almighty, there will be times He explains what He is doing. However, some days He is the Father who owes no explanation. He is just doing what needs to be done. Trust Him.

5 Things that Shaped Me

I have a difficult time finding the right adjectives to describe my life. Happy, blessed, amazing, fun, adventurous, good,…all of these would work. However, none of them could stand-alone and completely describe it. Even all together, it still seems as though something is missing. I’m happily married (23 yrs. to the same beautiful woman). I have four sons (2 biological and 2 adopted…and they all like me). I’m not drowning in debt. I’ve traveled to many places in the world. I have friends from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I’m relatively successful at what I do. My peers respect me. I even like myself (well…most of the time). Don’t get me wrong. I encounter problems and have to deal with difficult people. I have my fair share of challenges and a lengthy list of failures (and it is still growing). But I can tell you, my life is not a sad country song and it would make a lousy script for a Lifetime movie. How did I get this incredible life? I know my blessings come from my Heavenly Father, but I’ve been thinking, “God has used both good and bad to make me who I am. He has used pleasant as well as painful events to shape me.” Allow me to share with you 5 individuals/events that became molding moments in my life. Now, 4 of the 5 things I’m going to share happened before I got married. I’m going way back to the first half of my life.

1) My Parents Relationship with Each Other (a.k.a. their marriage)

My parents adore each other (they just recently celebrated 51 years together). They do not have a perfect marriage, but there has never been any doubt about the love they have for one another. They’ve had arguments (like the time dad cut up mom’s credit card), but rarely in front of my brother and me. I knew they were together…that “they” were before “me” and I was not going to come between them. Parents today are pressured to provide opportunities, adventures and high tech toys for their kids to be happy. Moms and dads are made to feel guilty if they don’t let their kids be the center of the universe. Let me tell you…the best thing parents can give their kids is a happy marriage and for that to happen the kids (and their activities) can’t be the center of attention. I know how to act in my marriage because I have a good example to follow. I didn’t know this as a kid or as a teen, but I see it now. Their marriage helped shape me.

2) My Home Church while Growing Up

A very unique thing happened to me when I was growing up. My family stayed in the same church for over 2 decades. That’s right…from birth until I left for college I attended the same church. It was not a church free from problems or scandals (I saw 3 pastors have very public, moral failures). My parents stayed when things got uncomfortable. As a result, I also got to see the power and grace of God work among imperfect people. I went to kids camp and attended youth retreats. My parents always budgeted for those things and encouraged me to attend. I don’t ever remember being forced to go to church. I wanted to go. I made solid friendships there, heard God’s voice there, received His grace there and began to serve Him there. I didn’t notice it when it was happening, but I see it today. God was shaping me through those experiences and relationships. Just a word of advice to the popular reaction of church hopping when things get messy: its hard to spiritually grow up if we keep uprooting ourselves and re-planting in a new place.

3) High School Football

Football was my favorite sport. One week at practice (I was a junior), I had a string of exceptional days. As a result, I became the starting running back. A dream come true. During the game I wasn’t so exceptional. After getting tackled for a loss the coach called me to the sideline, grabbed my face-mask and yelled, “You are only good for practice!” He then shoved me aside like we do with the garbage once we have closed the bag. I was crushed. I was embarrassed. I was shamed. For the rest of the season I never entered a game again. I thought often about quitting, but a thought entered my head one day after a particularly difficult practice. Was I playing football for my coach or was I playing football to represent Christ and have a good time? Once I answered that question, I never thought about leaving the team again. So it is with adversity in life. Ever since then when I have encountered difficult situations that seem unfair or cruel, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Am I representing Christ or am I trying to win someone else’s approval?” My senior year I got to lead one of my teammates to Christ. If I had quit…well…there would be a different ending. God used adversity to shape me.

4) My Mentor

When I was 17, I felt called to the ministry. By 19, I was the pastor of a small country church in northwest Alabama. Wow…a lot happened in those two years, but one of the best friendships I’ve ever had began at that time. His name was Bobby and he became my mentor in the ministry. He was in his late fifties enduring the hardship of Muscular Dystrophy and I was a sophomore in college. On weekend nights my college buddies were out having fun or returning from road trips. Me…well I was hanging out with Bobby preparing sermons, visiting people or planning a church activity. It was a bittersweet time. Many days I would experience frustration because I felt I wasn’t having the typical college experience; and on other days, I was soaking up the wisdom of someone who was teaching me how to do what God had created me to do. It was during this season of my life I learned to be teachable. I gave Bobby permission to ask me difficult questions, to challenge me spiritually and emotionally. The pay off…he taught me how to be a spiritual leader and laid the foundation for many of the professional habits I still practice today. Bobby is with the Lord now, but ever since my time with him I have always had a man in my life who I give permission to challenge me. I learned with Bobby that God shapes me through that kind of friendship.

5) My First Real Failure

I was the pastor at a rural church in south central Kentucky. The church (filled with many good people) was primarily led by one family. For the sake of this article, let’s call them the Smith family. I was in my late twenties, cocky and arrogant. I had just earned my masters degree and I truly felt I could take on hell with a water pistol and win. The Smith’s were well established in the community and held all the major leadership roles in the church. They also had nothing to do with my coming to pastor the church. I later learned that not one Smith voted for me to be their pastor. Needless to say, we did not play well with each other. They were mean to me (not my wife…just me). They thwarted every effort I made to lead the church and because I was such a Godly person I responded with love, forgiveness, grace and kindness…WRONG! Unfortunately, instead of being Christ-like I was Cary-like…and I almost got fired. They encouraged people to stop giving to the church, stop participating in activities, and spread many hurtful rumors about me. The best attended service and largest offering taken in over 20 years happened the day I resigned. It was a huge failure in my life, but God used it to shape me. Honestly, I needed that failure. Through that self-inflicted mess I learned stuff about God and about me that set me up for future success. Without those lessons, I would be a different person today and probably not a better person.

As I stated, God has used both good and bad to shape me. The hope in this is that He is also using the good and bad in your life to shape you. The shaping never stops. I’m still a work in progress, but God used these events/people/experiences to make me who am I to this point in my life. Every good thing comes from above and sometimes we don’t realize it was a good thing until we look back.

Faith is a Game Changer

I recently asked an acquaintance if he was a person of faith. I was inquiring because he had some sincere qualities I wanted to know more about. He proceeded to describe himself as a “spiritual person” following a mixture of Hindu teachings, Jewish traditions and Christian values. Basically, he had made up his own moral code. I’ve not spent much time with this young man, but I do get to interact with him on a regular basis. I have found him to be a very pleasant person who loves his wife and kids. He is moral, considerate, hard working and honest. I think he is sincerely trying to follow the rules and expectations he has made for himself, but when I asked him about being a person of faith, he had no idea what I was talking about. Even though he is spiritual, he told me he really does not have faith nor does he know what it is.

A spiritual person and a person of faith are not the same thing. Although these two types of people may have many similarities (they can both have integrity, be kind, generous, honest and sincere), there is one thing that makes them different: faith. A spiritual person has rules, and quite frankly, many of the rules are good ones. Many Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Mormon and just plain citizenship rules are moral and right.

A person of faith has more than rules. They have a gift that motivates them to follow Jesus, know their Creator and walk in the Spirit of God. Have you ever wondered where faith comes from? Paul told his Roman readers, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17) According to this, we cannot just create faith. Faith comes to us when we hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ. Rules are different. We can create rules. Not only can we create rules but we can also pick and choose the rules we want to follow from various different sources…just like my acquaintance above is doing.

Rules are not bad as long as we understand their purpose. The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a group of people who were struggling with the difference between rules and faith. Notice what he says about the role of rules, he uses the word “law”:

Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.  – Galatians 3:23-25 (NLT)

Rules are good, but they have a limit as to what they can accomplish. Paul calls them a “guardian.” The word means tutor, schoolmaster, or guide. In the Roman Empire the title was given to a trustworthy slave who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the wealthy citizens of Rome. The boys were not allowed to go anywhere without their guardian until they entered manhood. Literally, their guardian governed every decision they made. How stifling! What pressure they must have endured to please their guardian? What resentment they must have fostered longing for the day to be their own person?

Rules, from any religion or moral code, still stifle, create pressure and foster resentment. However, faith does not do that. Faith, born from receiving and believing the message of Jesus Christ, does not stifle us. It creates freedom for us to be what our Creator designed us to be. Faith does not pressure us. It releases us to live for a purpose greater than ourselves. When we fail, faith does not create resentment (which motivates us to give up). It creates conviction (a desire to change).

The acquaintance I mentioned above is not in a bad place…unless he thinks pleasing the guardian is the goal. His self-made guardian will frustrate him. Eventually, he will either give up (and start throwing out rules) or he will turn to the One who can give him faith (hopefully, I can encourage this). What about you? Are you still under the care of a guardian or have you been given faith because you received and believed the message of Christ?

Believers around the world are celebrating the risen Christ this week. As a result, their faith is practiced, shared and acted upon. They are not keeping rules. They are living out their faith. There is a difference.

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