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When someone becomes a Christian there are many things to think about. How do I pray? Where should I start reading in the Bible? What does it really mean to not only believe in Jesus but to follow him every day? These are great questions and essential to ones growth in faith. Other questions that come much later are about money. How much should I give to God? Where does my money go when I give to God through the church? How is it spent? Do I have to give to the church first or can I give money wherever I want as long as it's a Christian cause?

I want to answer those questions in this article today. New believers sometimes ask how much they should give? The Bible's answer is found in 2 Corinthians 9:7 "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." Earlier in this passage it talks about giving as an act of grace in which Paul hopes the church will excel (2 Cor 8:7) I believe in informed giving. Meaning, the Bible is explicitly clear, that while we should give cheerfully and without compulsion we must also recognize that the tithe (10% of ones income) plays a huge role throughout Scripture. Jesus affirmed the tithe  along with 50% and even 100%. So, my answer is, give what you feel God wants you to give, ALWAYS with the desire that he increase your capacity and desire to give. If you've been a Christian for 20 years and you're still just dropping one bill in the basket each week or month, it's time to grow.

Where does my money go when I give to God through the church? How is it spent? The churches budget falls into 5 categories. Here they are with the percentage of the budget they require: Staff (51%), Office & Admin (7%), Ministry (7%), Outreach (11%), Building/Maintenance (24%). The total church budget is $151,826 which isn't much. When you give, the money is pre-designated to these five areas. There is very little extra planned into such a tight budget. Sometimes people try to help by purchasing things for the church themselves and then reducing their own giving by that amount. But this reduces the overall amount coming in and limits the choices the church can make in its spending. For example, someone might purchase a brand new rocking chair for the nursery and then count this as their tithe. But the reality is, that $200 would be more helpful going toward the budget as a whole since we may decide a rocking chair isn't really a priority at this time.


Do I have to give to the church first or can can I give to other organizations if they're Christian based? God designed and designated the Church to be his representative on earth. We are his hands and feet. No other organization, no matter how noble the cause, can claim the pedigree of the church. It is first in Jesus' affection and his Plan A for bringing the Gospel to the world. So, my answer is yes - the church first, always. If you are blessed in a significant way, by all means, give to other organizations (Jody and I do) but give to the church first. If you give, and I hope you do, give sacrificially, cheerfully and liberally as God has blessed you. 

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I'm going through a process right now that I hope will bless the whole church eventually. The goal of the process is to rediscover the church's purpose and mission. But, one of the steps is to sit down and hammer out my core convictions - core beliefs, bedrocks that guide my decisions whether consciously or not. These are not beliefs that are forced on other people. These are MY guiding convictions that dictate my decisions and behavior. For example, one of my core convictions is that people need meaningful connections in life and it's my job to help them make those connections. I like to introduce people to one another and get them talking.  Another of my core convictions is the importance of loyalty and dedication. There are people in my life who have been loyal to me and poured into me. I feel a strong sense of loyalty to the people and projects in my life. It's what keeps me working at something long after others have given up. I'm the guy who will keep working the problem or finding that next puzzle piece or strategizing solutions even when everyone else has moved on. I want to be a finisher. I also have a conviction that whatever the task I should be the hardest worker involved, leading by example. There are many more.

These are beliefs that come out of who I am - not necessarily because I trained myself to be this way. But if you press me, these are the convictions I fall back on. In certain situations I act and feel as I do because of these convictions. Sometimes our convictions are very right. As in the belief that the world is lost and its only hope is Jesus. Sometimes our convictions are very wrong. Like, The Detroit Lions will one day win the Super Bowl.

Our core convictions guide us even if we're not citing the specific related belief. Jody and I joke that throughout our married lives we've just done stuff. Things that might seem difficult or insurmountable, we just dive right in. It's not naivete. We just didn't let things intimidate us. If God was leading us we figured, "why not? Let's go for it." This goes for ministry initiatives, leaving our previous church and planting a new one and many decisions throughout the years. In doing this exercise of discovering my core convictions I realized one of them was simply, "I trust God to lead me". But I never cited that over the years. It was just a part of me. It drove my actions.

What are your core convictions? What are the beliefs, spoken or unspoken that drive your decisions and behavior? A convictions define what you believe at the very core of your being. They rarely change, they cause passion in you and they will travel with you wherever they go, and if they're godly, will still be viable 100 years from now. So review your past. Review your life lessons. What topics get you fired up? As you think about these questions, your core convictions will emerge.

Some more examples:

The Bible is true and relevant for all time.

Everyone needs Jesus

I should have a clean heart, hands and motives before God

Partnership with others is better than going it alone


Try it. What are the core beliefs driving your life?

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I originally titled this "trust in the church" but it read more like a command than a title. Trust can't be commanded anymore than love can be ordered. Trust is earned. It can be lost and it can be regained. Unfortunately it can be lost much quicker than it is gained. Within the church people tend to trust a little quicker than outside the church, simply because we follow Jesus and we assume that most people within the church are doing the same. But inevitably, something happens within the church, within our relationships and trust is broken. It could be something you told someone in confidence that got repeated to others, or the ministry task you asked them to help with that they simply bailed on or you saw them outside of a Sunday gathering doing or saying things that were deeply hypocritical. Of course there are many other ways trust can be broken. How do we respond when we feel trust has been broken? For many, the default response is to leave the church. It's always easier to simply walk away. But easy is rarely the best decision. In fact, easy is often the enemy of growth, both personal and spiritual.

Some have encountered trust issues not only with people in the church but also with leadership. If surveyed, most church attenders would probably cite sex and money as being the top causes for a lack of trust in church leadership. And no wonder - recent issues within the Catholic church, megachurch pastor failures and televangelist scandals of the last 3 decades prove this out. It is a challenge to trust people in the church and sometimes an even great challenge to trust those in leadership.

WHAT IS TRUST?

Trust is confidence. It’s belief in someone’s reliability.
When you hire a contractor or skilled tradesman you TRUST that they know their business and will accomplish the task for which you've hired them.
When you get your taxes done at H&R Block you TRUST that the CPA knows the tax code and can put together a good return.

When you go to an amusement park you TRUST that the ride operator and the park safety inspectors have done their job and you won't die when the coaster does a barrel roll.

In the church, sex and money, while widely reported, are not usually the reasons for loss of trust in a pastor, leader or friend. It usually comes down to two issues: Speech and Execution
Speech simply means the way we take in and either hold onto or transfer information.
Execution is defined as “the carrying out or putting into effect a plan or course of action.”
Loss of trust over speech is easy to point out. Often we never circle back and confront it. We just chose to stop confiding in a person we know has loose lips. Execution is a little more complex.
For example, someone agrees to serve on a ministry team but they don't follow through. They didn't execute. Or a leader announces a ministry initiative or plan that never actually happens. Lack of execution. While those things aren't glaring, in your face, inconsistencies, they erode trust over time.

How do we deal with a loss of trust? Whether it is speech or execution the first step has to be:

1. Make the person aware. This seems so obvious but it's incredible how many people don't realize they've misspoken, misrepresented themselves or missed a scheduled time to serve. Often, this clears up the misunderstanding within 5 minutes. Next . . .
2. Give them a chance to make it right. This is why timeliness is critical. If it's a speech issue they can readily recall the matter. If it is a ministry issue or a lack of follow through, the sooner we address it the better. There may still be time for them to partially complete the task. This doesn't work if we wait 6 months. Finally . . .
3. Be constructive in helping them earn back trust. Offer ways they can start again, perhaps with smaller responsibility or in a different ministry that better suits them. And as always, love has to guide these interactions.

Trust is essential in the church. Let's guard it well.
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Getting some perspective . . .

I've always been a reader so I picked up the meaning of many words simply based on their context - even if I wasn't pronouncing them correctly. I always read the word "awry" as awe-ree. And the word "hyperbole" as hyper-bowl instead of high-PER-bull-lee. I knew what they meant even if I'd never seen them in action. What does it look like for something to go awry or for something to be described with hyperbole? Now I know. I watch it happen every day on the news or on someone's Facebook post. The internet defines hyperbole as "exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally." Synonyms include overstatement, exaggeration, embellishment.

I've seen lots of this happening this week. Most of the overstatements came from weather forecasters as they described the polar vortex and the accompanying snow. "Coldest temperatures in decades!" "Frostbite within x# of minutes of exposure!" "Close everything! Stores, restaurants, doctors offices and Starbucks!" "Going out in these temperatures could cause instant death!" "Danger, danger, danger!" Ok, those last two were hyperbole. But you get the idea. And yes, it was cold. Bitter even. But there is an intense amount of hype surrounding every weather event and most of it is overstatement. We gear up for the storm of the decade and end up with a few inches of powder, or none at all.

We do this in our own lives though. The day to day frustrations of life can become enormous in our minds if we let them grow. How many conversations have you had where someone is recounting a spilled coffee or a technological/computer/phone problem and someone responds with, "oh, that's just the worst!" Comedian Tim Hawkins does a fantastic bit about this very phrase. When something happens is it really the worst thing ever? We tend to exaggerate the little things that frustrate us and it throws other things in our life out of perspective. Traffic snarls on US 23, choosing the wrong checkout line in Meijer and waiting 20 minutes while you watch a dozen people go through the line you should have gotten into, dropping the milk carton onto the kitchen floor and a million other tiny annoyances that irritate us but are just not that bad. What about the person going through something truly difficult?

This is just one of the many things about the Gospel that is so amazing. The truth of Jesus and what he did on the cross in his eternal assault on the consequences of sin has a grounding effect. It brings us back to reality. We can understand that no matter what the situation or the forecast we serve a God who has carried the weight of the world's sin and shame and literally gone to hell and back for His own Creation - there is no doubt in my mind - that is the worst. We won't be able to stop newscasters from predicting gloom and doom and using hyperbole to describe whatever weather is on the way, nor will we be able to avoid the things in life that annoy and irritate but we can submit those things to Jesus and get some perspective. "Is this really as bad as I think it is?"

One thing we forget is that our circumstances are for our growth in Christ. If we are constantly blowing them out of proportion or desperately trying to avoid anything that might upset us or be difficult, we miss whatever God is doing through that circumstance. Whatever is happening in your life might be bad, but "the storm of the century"? Not likely. But an opportunity to trust God and grow? Guaranteed. Now, bundle up and cover any exposed skin! You don't want to freeze out there. 

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The January blues . . .

If you are struggling early in this new year with depression and a heaviness in your heart you are not alone. January depression, January blues, winter blues, whatever name you want to put to it, is a real thing. A scientist in the UK has labeled it acute post-bank holiday depression. Others attribute the feelings of gloom to SAD, seasonal affective disorder which affects 1 in 15 people. Some have labeled the third Monday of January the most depressing day of the entire year while others have declared January 24 to hold the title. All of the titles and specific days don't change the fact that many people fight an enormous battle with depression in January. It can be so difficult that it's probably wise to NOT make any life changing decisions in January since you can't be sure the decision is based solely on how you feel rather than good decision making practices.

     Why is January so tough? The holidays are over which creates a let down. The bills from Christmas come rolling in, the days are often dark and overcast and snowy. Less time is spent with friends and family as there are no holidays or occasions for celebration. There are many other factors which influence the feelings of gloom and sadness. How do these feelings of depression affect the person who loves Jesus and should have joy in their heart? Are they just not trying hard enough? Not praying enough? Not giving their problems to Jesus?

     Those of us who experience periodic bouts of depression know that prayer can help but there are psychological and environmental factors as well. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that somehow God is not sufficient for the person with depression. He can meet every need. But telling a person in the depths of depression that they aren't praying enough is not a remedy. There are things you can do along with prayer and counsel from a pastor or caring friend that can help navigate this most depressing of all months.

     Doctors recommend getting outside, even if for just a 15 minute walk around your neighborhood. The fresh air and the increased exposure to sun (even if it's overcast - remember, it's possible to get a sunburn on a cloudy summer day) can brighten your mood and boost your serotonin levels.

Don't hibernate. Sleeping for hours on end might seem like an easy way to pass the time and get through a difficult month but it actually makes you less likely to snap out of that winter funk. Instead take short power naps if you're sleepy and spend your waking hours doing something productive.

Often when people are depressed they don't want to spend time with others but that is exactly what can help boost your mood in a difficult time. So, get together regularly with people who build you up.

     Other suggestions for the winter blues: a. Clean out one area of your house that needs some attention. It will make you feel productive and useful. b. Try something new. My parents blessed me with tap dancing lessons at Christmas. After 2 lessons I find it's something I look forward to each week and it's a wonderful brain break. c. Take some time to think through the lessons you learned over the last year. This will help you realize that life is beautiful and worth waking up for.

     More important than all of these suggestions though, is turning your struggle with depression over to Jesus. Reminding yourself that even in your darkest night he is with you, he is your lifeline, your shield and defender, your protector, your joy and your sufficiency - this is your first line of defense, not your last. Psalm 40:1-3 and Psalm 42:11 are excellent verses for those who are struggling with this.

Psalm 40:1–3 [1] I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. [2] He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. [3] He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

Psalm 42:11 [11] Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

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The good life . . .

Ask anyone. Even the super rich. Or ask the poorest person in the darkest slum in southeast Asia. Ask anyone in between and they will tell you that life is hard. No one can honestly say that life is a piece of cake. Some have it a little easier than others but it's really just a matter of degrees. Everyone faces challenges, frustrations, sickness, annoying people, deaths in the family, financial difficulties and much, much more. In a world full of so much sin and wrong is it possible to see beyond it to the what we would call the "good life"?
First, let's define the good life. Most people have in their minds what is good and often it's the opposite of whatever challenge they are facing at the time. "If I just had perfect health" or "If I made just an extra $500 per month" or "if I had just a different job". You get the idea. Or the good life is based on whatever we believe would make us the most comfortable, happy and secure. It's a vision of our ideal future.
This is an elusive concept. For example, we are often satisfied with what we have in life and would say that it is mostly good. We might like our job, our house or our car - until our neighbor/coworker/friend gets a better job/house/car and suddenly ours is not as good. So, better becomes the enemy of the good.
Sometimes we think that having more will make life good. We accumulate things and they add up but we actually get less happy. Studies have been done showing that people with fewer choices are happier than people who have many choices. There is a psychological factor in play here where we mourn missing out on things in contrast to having fewer choices, where we're just happy to have what little is available to us. Less is really more. Generally, people in poorer countries are happier overall. More stuff = more problems.
To truly live the good life we need to first define it according to Biblical values. The good life has less to do with stuff and health and more to do with how we look at the world around us. Do we see our lives as being filled with the love, peace and joy of God? Are we grateful for what God has given us or do we only look at what we lack? Life is hard but we have a better life than we often realize. Jesus never promised an easy life but to be with us as we went through it.
    If you want to know if you're living the "good life" first ask, does my definition have a ring of God's truth? Would He call it a good life? Does it line up with Biblical principles? What does Scripture say about a good life? Psalm 34:12–14 [12] "What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? [13] Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. [14] Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it." For starters, if you want to see the good life, guard your speech and your behavior and seek peace.
    Next, are you letting the better become the enemy of good? Are you always looking around for what others have rather than expressing an attitude of gratitude for God's blessing in your life? God wants you to live the good life. But it's not necessarily the life our culture says is good. It's the life He says is good.

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