Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Storage Wars and Contentment

One of the problems with living in an older house is that the closets aren't very big. I don't know why not. It's almost as if people didn't have as much stuff sixty years ago as we do now.

When we first moved into our current house, we discovered very quickly that we wouldn't both be able to put our stuff into the closet in our bedroom. In fact, I'm pretty sure my wife didn't even put all her stuff into the closet. Fortunately, we had two closets upstairs so I got one and she got one. These days, we have some weird complicated system in which we both have several closets and keep different stuff in dressers, and have boxes in storage, and even have a pile or two. It would be a lot easier if we just had a big closet.

The same problem rears its ugly head when we try to find places to store all our stuff. We have a room in the basement that serves pretty much as a junk room. I'm pretty sure I don't have a clue of what half the things in there are. A few years ago we bought a new shed and I put it up in our back yard. We keep our bikes and sleds in it. It is also a convenient place for the lawnmower, rakes, shovels, and the snowblower. When we first bought the shed, I thought it would be a place we could put some shelves in and maybe move some stuff out of our "junk room." It's full already, and we didn't move anything.

At first I thought I shouldn't write about our organizational woes. I was concerned that maybe no one would know what I was talking about. I thought maybe we are the only family in the world who feels like we don't have enough storage space. Then I realized I was being foolish.

I think Americans are pretty much obsessed with storage. Since Muskegon isn't very big, our Barnes and Noble isn't huge. The "home" section here, though, has nearly 20 shelves of books devoted to house issues. Approximately a quarter of those books specifically deal with getting organized and utilizing better storage solutions. I would guess that the big city bookstores would have even more books about storage. If you watch TV a lot, you know that some channels are nearly devoted to home makeover shows, where the homeowners are almost always given better systems and furniture for organizing and storing their stuff. Most stores have sections devoted to storage solutions, and several specialty stores like Pier One, Crate and Barrel, and Ikea have made an industry of attractive storage.

Drive through a new housing development sometime. The houses being built these days have garages larger than my house. I don't think this reflects a change in the size of automobiles (although more people are driving SUVs and mini-vans because they are more efficient for hauling our stuff... but that's another issue). I think we're building bigger garages because contractors and architects realize that garages are more than just covered parking places. They are storage areas.

A few years ago my brother moved across the state. He had to be out of his current house before his new house was ready so he rented a small storage unit. I hadn't been in one of these before, so being a bit of a simpleton, I was fascinated. It was like he had rented his own garage. He could keep anything in there that he wanted. Day or night, he could just drive out there and get his things. And it wasn't taking up any room in his house. The whole storage unit thing seemed like a really good idea to me. I thought it was something that had a real chance to become popular. On the way home, I noticed several self-storage facilities. I realized the idea had already caught on. I just didn't know it. There was even a self-storage place around the corner from my house!

I started to keep an eye out for these "garages away from the garage". They were everywhere. I realized I couldn't drive anywhere in town without seeing one. Amazingly, they are still being built at break-neck speed. It seems there is no end to our need to store things.

I started to wonder if one of these self-storage units was the solution for my closet problems. Obviously I couldn't store my clothes at Bob's Store-N-Lock. Apparently law enforcement officers look poorly on driving without clothing. My clothes need to stay in the house. I began to think about the things I could store away from the house. My list slowly grew, but eventually I decided I couldn't justify paying out a monthly fee just because I had too many things for my house. Maybe, I thought, it would be better to just get rid of some things. Since then, I've become a regular contributor to our area thrift stores (This is another issue that should be addressed, why do we think it is okay to "charitably" give away the stuff we don't want? Are we supposed to feel good about ourselves when we do this?).

One summer I spent a week in Chicago with a group of high school students. We went to several different soup kitchens and helped make the food, set the tables, serve the meals, and clean up. During those evenings I felt alive and in touch with the mission of Jesus. I also met some incredibly fascinating people. After the men and women ate their meals, some of them were willing to stay around and talk. I listened to their stories about which church's served the best meals in their basements, and which parks the police were most likely to kick them out of, and what was the best way to keep your bag full of things from getting stolen.

They didn't talk very much about their storage problems. No one complained that their closet was too small. One guy commented that he wished the basket on his bicycle was larger. It wasn't quite big enough to hold all his stuff.

All his stuff.

He could almost fit everything he owned in a bicycle basket.

The first time I left the country, I went to Jamaica. I was in ninth grade. I remember riding in a van through Kingston and seeing real poverty for the first time. Our driver pointed to what appeared to be a dumping ground for old waste lumber. "That's one of the poorer neighborhoods in Kingston", he said. I couldn't get my mind around that on several levels. I wasn't seeing anything that even remotely resembled a house, let alone a neighborhood. Looking closer, i realized that the piles of scrap lumber I was looking at were really houses the size of refrigerator boxes. Once I understood that I was actually looking at a neighborhood, I realized that our driver had said, "one of the poorer neighborhoods." I couldn't believe that he was implying there could possibly be a poorer place than what I was looking at. "Yeh Mon!" he said when I asked. There was much poorer.

Until that moment, I really didn't know how good I had it. Now I know that Kingston, Jamaica is not even as bad as it gets. Plenty of places exist which are far poorer. One thing you'll never find in these places is a self-storage facility.

An enormous number of people in our world would look at our Bob's Store-N-Lock and wonder if they would ever be able to look inside such luxurious townhouses. We just open the door and throw in the stuff we don't want to have around.

Although writing about this makes me feel guilty, that's not my point. I don't think God expects us to feel guilty just because we have more than other people. I don't believe there is an inherent spiritual value in being poor. I think it is altogether possible (although arguably more difficult) for a rich person to be a deeply devoted follower of Christ. Jesus did not say "Blessed are the poor". He did say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Throughout history, many Christians have chosen to take vows of poverty, to give away all they own, and even to become destitute for the sake of their relationship with Christ. While that may work for them, I have yet to reach the conclusion that every Christian is compelled to rid themselves of all wealth. i think Christ is far more concerned with how we use our wealth.

God has always been concerned with the plight of the poor.

If you spend some time reading through the writings of the Jewish prophets, you'll quickly discover that one of the main reasons God allowed the Israelites to fall to the Assyrian empire was because they were oppressing the less fortunate. Several of the prophets wrote at great length of the evil being perpetrated on the poor by the privileged. Amos wrote,

"You trample on the poor
and force him to give you grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine." (Amos 5:11)

These are some of the kinder words you'll find written on the topic. In the previous chapter, Amos calls the women of Samaria "cows" because they were crushing the needy. The prophet Micah wrote that God detested the worship of the Israelites because of the great lack of justice. Jeremiah warned the king of Judah that his palace would become ruins if he did not take action to end the oppression of the innocent. History demonstrates that the warnings of the prophets fell on deaf ears. The rich and powerful of Israel and Judah continued to accumulate stuff (I wonder if they had extra storage facilities?) at the expense of the poor and under-privileged. Finally, God intervened through the empires of Assyria and Babylon. The oppressors were killed, captured, and imprisoned and the sovereign nation of Israel disappeared from the face of the earth.

After Jesus left earth, his followers had a pretty good grasp of the purpose of wealth. Around AD 100, a guy named Justin wrote about what happened when Christians got together. He wrote:

"there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need."

In those days, the "well to do" didn't accumulate stuff and fill their storage units. They gave it to the orphans and widows and those who were in need.

God doesn't want us to be destitute. He doesn't mind if we are wealthy. He does want us to utilize our wealth rightly, though. He wants us to think about others rather than ourselves. He wants us to use our money and possessions to demonstrate love to those who are hurting and oppressed and needy. I don't think He expects me to give all my money away, I think He expects me to think about Him and others before myself.

Apparently, in Jesus day, some people were already building storage units. He told a story about a farmer who had a great harvest. He accumulated so much grain he couldn't keep it all in his current house and garage. So he began to draw up plans to build an off-site storage unit. Since Jesus lived in an agrarian society, he called these storage units "barns". Then the man died.

Jesus called him a fool. He said, "That's what happens when you fill your barn with self and not God." (Luke 12:21)

I can't look at Bob's Store-N-Lock the same anymore. It's become a constant reminder to me. I've got a lot of stuff. Am I using it for me or for others. Is it bringing pleasure to me or to God?

Monday, July 9, 2012

2 Severe Misconceptions About Church

Thinking Biblically About the Church
Two severe misconceptions which should be corrected:
 A) Pastors do the work of the church.
 B) The work of the church happens on Sunday.

Biblically, the reality should be: 
 A) Pastors equip the church to engage Christ's mission
 B) The work of the church happens in the world.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Church Doesn't Exist For Me... or You.

I am here for the church.

The church here is for the world.

Simple enough, right?

Start with the statement: The church is here for the world.

Church: The Light of the World
  • Jesus said he came to call the righteous not the sinner. He lived to heal the sick, not the well.
  • We (followers of Jesus) are to be a light to the world.
  • We are to live in such a unique way that we season (make better) the world around us.
  • We are to be living IN the world (contrast with separating from the world.) so that we can bring the world to God.
  • We are to make disciples of the whole earth.

SUMMARY: The church as the body of Christ is God's gift to the world. We are the means by which God's grace is made known to those who are lost. (WE are the gift! The gift is not TO us)

My starting point (and the building block for the previous concept) is: "I am here for the church".
  • When I accepted Christ, I was baptized into the body of Christ.
  • Oneness is the operative concept in the church.
  • True love for my brothers is shown when I give up my own life for theirs.
  • I am to consider the needs of my brothers and sisters ahead of my own.
  • I have a unique role to fill in the church.
  • The growth and maturity of the church is my responsibility.
  • Everyone loses when I don't carry my weight.

SUMMARY: Every Christ-follower is a gift given to the church to enable the church to fulfill its mission.

If truly embraced, these ideas could change so much about how we "do"and "think" about church. Unfortunately, they lie in sharp contrast to the approach most (self often included) take to church. We too often believe:

The world is for the church... and the church is for me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

5 Patterns to Keep You on the Right Path

Every day is different. They are different from each other, and they are different than we thought they could be. When you go to bed and recap the previous day's events, you undoubtedly sigh, "That didn't happen how I thought it would."

The unpredictable roadblocks that appear every day have the potential to throw us off track, and land us on a different life path than we wish to follow. If we want to keep taking each step in life in the direction we've plotted for ourselves, we'll need to develop consistent daily patterns that can serve as landmarks for our journey through life.

You can figure out what these patterns need to be for you, but here are some of the patterns I seek to implement in my life. They bring a level of consistency that enables me to begin and end each day making sure I'm still on the path I desire to follow. Borrow what you like, burn what you don't:

Patterns Help Us Stay on Life's Path
1. Find Inspiration.

The very first inspiration for my day usually comes from the coffee pot (it's actually a k-cup machine, but that doesn't look as good in print). Once my eyes are starting to open, I need to find a boost to get my day started. Perhaps it will come from a picture of my children on the refrigerator (reminding me why I do what I do), or from a note a wrote to myself the night before, or from reading a book that inspires me. For some people, a few minutes of meditation or silence can be the inspiration they need to get their day going in the right direction.

Walking the best possible path through my day will be impossible if my first step isn't the right one. Intentionally planning to start the day with a piece of inspiration is the best possible way to start out on the right path.

2. Give Something Away.

We are often held back from success because of our attachment to accumulation. The constant temptation to chase after more "stuff" keeps us from focusing on what is really important. The easiest way to begin combating this habit is to create a daily practice of giving something away. If you are committed to giving something away every day, you will quickly discover that it is difficult to accumulate. You will be so focused on finding people with needs and on ridding yourself of excess that the idea of gathering more for yourself will quickly become distasteful.

Regular generosity is one element of a positive life rhythm. As with most virtues, generosity isn't acquired overnight, it is developed over time through discipline and healthy habits. The daily practice of giving is one of the more powerful habits you can develop.

3. Cultivate a Relationship.

"One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."

The relationships you develop over the course of your life will either enable you to walk life's path successfully or they will pull you off the path and leave you wandering in the forest of ruin. Take the time to develop relationships with the people who will influence you positively, and choose to be the friend who sticks closer than a brother.

The path being walked by the people who influence you is soon the path you will walk. Cultivate relationships with the people who are walking the path you desire to walk!

4. Invest in the Future.

If you never think about the future, you'll never get there. The best way to arrive at the future you envision is to invest every day in that vision of the future. Your investment might be something small like setting aside a couple dollars, or it might be large like signing up to begin a new degree program.The size of the investment is not nearly as important as the consistency of the investment. Creating a healthy rhythm demands that you lock yourself into the habit of investing in the future.

Don't, however, be narrow minded about the future. It may be that the best investment you can make in the future is an investment in others. Your personal future is not the only future. Your children have a future, your friends and family have futures, your neighbors have futures. Investing in their futures may sometimes be the best investment you can make in your own.

Whatever you do, don't get so bogged down in the minutia of today that you forget to think about the potential of tomorrow.

5. Be Grateful.

At the close of every day, you decide how the summary of that day will read. Was it a good day? Was it a bad day? Was it a difficult day? Was it the best day ever? Only you will get to evaluate the day, and only you will determine how it ends.

Remember, you cannot change what has happened during the day; you can only change how you respond to it. The trouble of the day won't go away, but you can decide not to dwell on it. The mistakes of the day won't get changed, but you can determine not to obsess about them. Choose instead to be grateful.

Before you fall asleep, count your blessings. Mentally walk through your day and remember all the good that happened to you and for you. Let yourself bask in all the experiences, relationships, and possibilities that are yours to enjoy. Be thankful and commit to an even better day tomorrow.

The Inability of Metaphors and Similes to Describe the Church

The difference between a metaphor and a simile is the word "like."  (that's perhaps overly simplistic, but useful:

Metaphor: You're a Dog.
Simile: You're like a Dog.

Of course, neither a metaphor nor a simile really does a good job of proclaiming reality:

You aren't a Dog.

Often times, Jesus and His friends used metaphors and similes to describe the church. Some of them would be:

  • The church is (like a) house
  • The church is (like a) family
  • The church is (like a) body
  • The church is (like a) temple

All of these are useful for helping us understand some nature or function of the church, but none of them are terribly effective as a comprehensive description of the reality of the church:

  • The church is not a house
  • The church is not a family
  • The church is not a body
  • The church is not a temple

The church is the church. It is completely different than any other organism/organization known to man. It is a spiritually-joined, missionally-driven, redeemed, justified, progressively-sanctified collection of people that extends through time and into the future.

...and that description doesn't even do it justice.

So I would offer up two suggestions:
Those who take offense whenever the picture of a corporation is used to explain or describe a function or segment of the church should realize that whether metaphor or simile, symbolic language is not a statement of reality, it is the verbal painting of a picture to aid in understanding.
Those who have turned the church into a corporation and would rather hear what Steven Covey, John Maxwell, and Seth Godin have to say about buildings, leadership, org charts, and marketing than they are about what the Bible says about elders, deacons, discipline, and communion need to take stock of whether they are pastoring churches or leading non-profits...
Those are two long and convoluted sentences. But they say what I meant to say, so you should read them again and then tell me what you think in the comments!