Thursday, November 29, 2012

Into the Learning Zone

I'm in Austin, TX for another swim meet, Senior Nationals on the campus of the University of Texas. It's an immense privilege to be able to participate at this level of swimming, with great people from around the country, many of whom have become good friends with whom we tend to pick up where we last left off.

I'm privileged to have a family who supports this pursuit even though they might find it, well, they might wonder a bit at my sanity to take vacation time to volunteer at an indoor swim meet, not getting to enjoy much of the warm weather (in a place like Austin) during the cold of a Midwest Winter. But they love me anyway!

Why do I do it? I think it's important to have a hobby or activity that is totally different from the paying job. There are important lessons to learn and growth to experience that I don't believe can happen by staying in one setting all the time.

1. Having a hobby helps push my comfort zone into the learning zone. Nobody wants to go to the panic zone, that place way beyond the learning zone. Everybody needs to go to the learning zone regularly. When I head off to a meet, especially one that requires a trip to an airport, I find myself more open to learning. I think it's the same reason a mission trip works so well to grow our faith. When we move into a different culture, a different setting, we can't depend on our usual senses and skills. We learn. We grow. 

2. Having a hobby frees my heart and mind to think in new ways, through different angles, about issues at work. Familiarity can breed stagnation. When I'm on a plane, on a pool deck, in a hotel lobby (like I am as I write this) or out to dinner with fellow officials, my mind can naturally drift to problems, difficulties, ideas and opportunities at work. I find I think about them differently, often leading to better conclusions and fresh ideas than would have been possible "inside."

3. Having a hobby grows my faith. As a Pastor I spend a lot of time with Christ-followers. Hanging with Christians all the time can grow faith but like a ship isn't made for a harbor, so a Christ-follower isn't made to stay inside the Church. My hobby gets me out with people from all different walks of life, with different thoughts about Christianity. I grow. I learn. I influence.

4. Having a hobby helps me get outside my area of discipline. Very similar to #1. I enjoy reading outside my discipline of theology because it grows my heart and mine. My hobby puts me in touch with people who lead companies and organizations. I have learned so much from airline pilots - lawyers - entrepreneurs - small business owners - teachers just to name a few. Through both observation and discussion I learn leadership that I can apply back home.

It's been a great year for growing as an official. The summer sabbatical grant afforded me the opportunity to participate in far more meets than usual, and in locations I'd never thought of going: Santa Clara (a great international meet), Missouri and of course to Omaha for Olympic Trials. I never thought I'd be at Trials. It was a tremendous experience!

This year has made me a better official, a better Pastor, a better leader, a better husband and father. I consistently revisit my summer blog posts, reminding me of the lessons learned (and the ones I'm still learning to apply), the areas of growth that remain (more to come no doubt) and the incredible privilege.

What are you doing to get yourself outside your comfort zone and into the learning zone?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Live Simply, Part 2

The Raker's Starfish Kid - Pierre Monel
One of the phrases we use with our Live Simply Project came from a friend and colleague of mine named Mike. It's this: "It's not your birthday. It's Jesus' birthday!" Our culture does all it can to obscure the reason for the Christmas season. Hidden behind the need to possess the latest and greatest and at a "rock bottom price" is a life that is still transforming the world.

Live Simply has been a transforming ministry at Cornerstone Church. We're in a battle against the values of the world which seek to shape us into something other than God's desire and purpose.

"Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good..."
- Romans 12:2 (Phillips Translation)
A story this year that seems to capture the pressing of values is the people camping out for a week outside Best Buy. Taking vacation, to be the first one in the store so they can save money on some purchases. Probably a lot of money, but seriously? The pursuit of the temporary has taken over the valuing of anything eternal. When we switch from consuming to live to living to consume we've crossed a line that radically changes our internal compass.

The threat of consumerism reaches much deeper than we may realize. When it changes our hearts then it changes our culture and it infiltrates our approach to Jesus.
When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences - music, books, t-shirts, conferences, and jewelry. (Out of Ur Blogpost)
The Live Simply Project is a practical, radical way to push back, seeking to keep our feet firmly planted in the center of Jesus' moral compass. Giving generously to the poor instead of indulging ourselves with gifts we don't need and many that we won't use isn't a silver bullet or magic pill. We must be careful that we are not approaching the Project with a consumer mentality - if I do this then I can do other things throughout the rest of the year. Live Simply is about a lifestyle not a Christmas effort.

Extricating ourselves from the quicksand of Christmas consumerism isn't easy. It goes against family traditions, culture and our own memories and desires to live the nostalgia and tradition again.

Here's the challenge to Cornerstone Church: cut back on what you buy for Christmas and give that portion away to the poor. What about these other ideas:

  • buying no gifts and instead focusing on family and living out the Gospel story perhaps by serving at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day
  • sending a card to friends and family that states something like this: your Christmas gift this year is a financial gift to feed and educate an orphan in Guatemala
  • supporting an orphan as a family and saving the usual Christmas gift finances to send an individual (perhaps you) on a mission trip to Guatemala or Haiti to serve that child and others with your own hands
Living Simply isn't about a season or a moment in time. It's about a heart change. Right now is a great time to take that first step. How are you going to live more simply this year? If you'd like to know more about Cornerstone's efforts, follow this link (The Live Simply Project) or comment on this post.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Live Simply

Live more simply so that others
might simply live

This has been our rallying call for the past 9 years around Cornerstone Church. It's not a call to skimp on toilet paper just because it's cheaper. It's a call to focus on the heart of God when everything around us tugs at us, pulls at us, screams at us to come over to the dark side. The dark side for me is the consumer side, the side that tells us we have to spend our way through Christmas so that we can pay for it during the first 3 months of next year, along the way missing the whole reason for the celebration in the first place.

9 years ago we started the Live Simply Project as a way to help us connect with the heart of God. The goal is simple [as it should be]: spend less on yourself and give that portion to the poorest of the poor in our world. For Cornerstone we encourage people to support a child in "our" orphanage in Guatemala called Fundaninos or a child in Haiti through Starfish Kids. Then we have a general offering which goes for a different project each year, with a tithe (10%) of that offering going to our local mission partner, Hamilton Living Water Ministries.

In 9 years we've invested over $460,000 into changing lives around the world. And while we've made an impact in our world, the change we've seen in our own lives has been just as significant.

Wal-mart, Target, Michael's (with whom my wife has a craft affair!) are all opening on Thursday for shopping. The creep continues....and it's getting closer. What will you do to push back? Will you resist the pull?

It's my opinion that if I want to be close to the heart of God then I need to be close to those that are close to God's heart. Who is that? It's the poor.
Proverbs 14:31 "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God."
When children approach me with bags of coins collected year round, I know it's working. 
When children have birthday parties but say, in lieu of presents, bring money for Live Simply, I know it's working.
When families actually do cut down on Christmas gift purchases and give like never before, I know it's working.
Consumerism captures us. It enslaves us to debt, spending our money before we earn it. It encrusts our hearts with a desire for more, making us less plyable in the hands of the Potter. What will you do this year to resist the encroachment?

If you'd like to know more about the live simple project, call the church office (513-874-0910) or comment on this blog and I'll be in touch. Consider what you might give this year. Generosity is one of the best ways to free yourself from the claws of consumerism. What will you do this year?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Be Followable Today

A colleague, Dan Metzger, writes a blog called Being Followable and the title has really been rolling around my heart the past few weeks approaching Election Day.

For a Christ-follower the goal is not the election of "our" candidate (if there is such a thing) - it is most certainly not about bashing others with whom we don't agree. 

The most important thing I can do today is live a life that others can follow to find Jesus. Most  unchurched people I know don't have as much problem with the Church as they do with churched people who don't act like Jesus. Be followable.

Today I want to live a life that makes it hard for people to go to hell; to live in such a way that people can find Jesus in me.

This past Sunday I said: "Should the election of anyone shake the faith of a Christ-follower?" I don't think so because our trust and faith are not in any human being.

Psalm 20:7 "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God."
Psalm 146:3 "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save."
So today I will vote. And then I will seek to live in such a way that the name of Jesus is glorified. I will not spend my time villifying someone with whom I disagree politically.

Someone asked me the other day if I was a Republican or a Democrat. My reply was simple: "Nobody at Cornerstone knows that because it's not the most important thing to know. I serve Democrats and Republicans and Independents. Together we're seeking to serve Jesus."

I can be concerned. I can be confused. I can be upset or disappointed. I can believe that our country is going in the right or wrong direction. I can be overjoyed. I can be excited about the future or feel like I stand on shifting sands of uncertainty. None of it matters. All of it is temporal. None of it is eternal.

I look forward to gathering with donkeys and elephants on the last Ark. We'll get to spend it together because the last time I checked, it wasn't red or blue, donkey or elephant that might separate us from God. The only thing that matters is a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. 

I'm not arrogant enough to think that everything I believe is exactly correct. I seek to live out God's Word in my daily life, extending His Kingdom and being Jesus to those around me. One day God will probably say to me: "Jeff, you made an inconsequential idea central to what you believed. You made a mountain out of a molehill."

So today, be followable. Make it easy for people to believe in Jesus no matter what you believe politically. And pray for our country, that our leaders will have wisdom and strength to lead us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ordinary People

Jason Gray sound check
God uses ordinary people for extraordinary things. I've said it. You've heard it. It became real again for me last night at a concert by Todd Agnew & Jason Gray @ Cornerstone. I had the chance to listen to them warm up, interacted with them casually, heard their stories during the concert and learned more about them on the drive to their hotel in Dayton in the wee hours of Monday!
Todd Agnew

Todd Agnew & Jason Gray w Spencer on percussion
They're ordinary guys - husbands, fathers, servants, musicians, followers of Jesus. They struggle with the same stuff I do. They are overjoyed with the same stuff that brings joy to my life - my kids! They love serving, helping people worship, honoring our Lord.

During the concert, Todd talked about the atmosphere being a "safe place" to share some stuff about life. As we neared the hotel I brought it up, saying: "When people ask me to describe Cornerstone I nearly always say 'It's a safe place for people to ask tough questions.'" If there's a piece of pride I could have about Cornerstone it is that. We have tried to make room for ordinary people to ask questions, the questions that keep them up at night; the confusing questions they wrestle with; the questions that have no answers.
Mark & Debbie Peters w Jason Gray
Jason and I talked about that last one on the ride. We both enjoy reading and of the different authors we both read, one favorite in common is Philip Yancey. He's not afraid to ask difficult questions and not come to a clear answer by the end of a book. Where he does come to that we both appreciate is a trust and faith in God who holds both the questions and the answers together.

Ordinary guys seeking to serve Jesus. Christian music stars who miss being around their families. Todd who calls his wife, first thing after a concert - family first, fans second. Jason who follows his wife's direction for sleep instead of a phone call. Smart man!

I appreciated hearing about struggles, ways God is growing their hearts, difficulties that some would use as excuses (like Jason's stuttering). Sometimes we raise people up on a pedestal, thinking they're different from the rest of us. I do it. Then I watch Jason kneel down in front of Drew, a young man disabled in a car wreck four years ago. He's a Jason Gray fan. Nobody else needed to see it, just Jason, Drew and Drew's parents. Ordinary people serving with what God has given.
One of my swim coaches reminded us about the competition - "they put their pants on the same way you do, one leg at a time." Every athlete I know has been injured - some choose to work through it - some choose to use it as an excuse. Every Christian I know wrestles with the same stuff - temptations, realizing how much they don't know, the memory of poor choices, wanting to grow in the discipline of prayer, burdened by concerns, missing family. Every marriage has the same issues. Every teenager feels the same way.

You are ordinary. I am too. We each have talents and gifts, God created, God given through Jesus. What will we do with them? We can allow the difficult things of life to make us think we're different, that the universe is against us. Or we can realize our shortcomings and fears and concerns remind us that we're human, and choose to give ourselves grace for the journey. God can do amazing things when ordinary people say, "Here I am Lord, send me."

w Jason Gray