Who doesn’t love the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, better known as March Madness? There was a time in my life that I would be able to attend many of the games in person but the demands of pastoral ministry in North Carolina have left that near impossible these past nine years. So, like many NCAA enthusiasts I am resigned to living out the excitement at home as I check my brackets on a weekly basis. The odds makers stated that eighty percent of everyone that completed a bracket had lost after the first game. My final four brackets had Florida vs. Virginia in the South and East and Baylor vs. Michigan in the West and Midwest with Florida wining it all. I still predict Florida to win it all but I must say I am still a sucker for the underdog so for the fun of it I am giving Kentucky my vote. But the real value of the NCAA Tournament for me is in the life lessons. The games were more meaningful for me to watch, as I stayed clued in for how I could relate it back to everyday life. As you watch the Final Four consider some of these lessons:
- I don’t always get to play another game. So often in life we approach our opportunities, friendships and relationships like we always have tomorrow. There is a day called, “too late” when we no longer get to pursue our greatest dreams, hopes and aspirations. While you are still playing (have life) pursue your greatest hopes now, while you can.
- Games are won when the basics are mastered. I remember my father teaching me how to dribble a basketball when I was a very small child. He placed folding chairs in the basement of our home teaching me to dribble with both hands. Yes, we see remarkable plays but the team that can make free throws, dribble, pass, play solid defense and make few mistakes is going to win the game. Like life, games are won not based on sensational play but solid and stable play. Spend your life being solid, making few mistakes and being accountable and responsible on the court of life.
- My weakest areas must be developed. I am sure we have all seen games lost over missed free throws or low percentage shooting. In life, we assume that our strength in an area will automatically compensate for my weakness in another. This is not true. I have seen preachers with great style but no substance. This is always a formula for long- term failure. Each of us must identify where we are weak and then develop a strategy for strengthening that area. It is in the strengthening of our weaknesses that we take the strain off of our strengths. This is essential because when our strengths get strained they get reduced to weaknesses.
- My mental game is as important as my physical game. Have you ever seen players make mental mistakes? Of course. This is usually a result of fatigue or frustration. Games are lost when our head is not in it. This is where compartmentalization comes in. We must learn to focus on the matter at hand. Admittedly, this is a difficult discipline. I am learning this requires a regular purging of the emotions that are not associated with my current activity. In basketball this means not allowing the frustration of the last play to hinder me on this next possession. Keep the past in the past. Keep the present in the right container remembering that not everything even deserves a container.
- Learn to anticipate what’s next. Rebounding is so important in basketball because you can’t score without the ball. Time of possession in every sport is important. Anticipating when and where the ball is coming off the rim or backboard is required to be a good rebounder. So often in life opportunities pass us by because we had no clue what was about to happen next. One reason I have learned to pay attention to politics is that very little happens over night. A new or expanded highway may take five or ten years to complete but the result is a subsequent increase in real estate values. When we have an idea of what is next we can be in place ahead of time and benefit from good positioning.
- Assists matter. One of my old basketball coaches would remind us that there needed to be “three touches” before someone shot the ball. Nobody likes a “ball hog.” When I was running ball in North Philadelphia, it was not uncommon to hear someone say, “Give up the rock, man.” In basketball and in life we must learn to share the ball and to help other people score. We all win when the people we share life and experiences with succeed.
- Expect the unexpected. In any NCAA game an upset is possible. A key player can be injured or just have a bad game or some ninth or tenth man could get hot from just past the arc and have the game of his life. Yes, anything is possible. I am learning to live my life with a spirit of expectation and anticipation because any day could just be the day when the unthinkable and unexplainable occurs in my life. I look forward to that day.
- A work ethic is essential. Hustle, man! I loathe seeing an easy score because an opposing team didn’t hustle down the court. I learned from my father the value of hard work. The game is played on both sides of the court and both require our absolute best efforts. Too often we turn in marginal or sub-par performances because we simply didn’t give it our best.
- Don’t wait until game day to make the play. I remember be a young minister laying out my Bible on the iron board and preaching my sermon in the mirror. I still made mistakes in the pulpit but I made fewer of them because I was already working on the plays. Practice. Practice. Practice. And remember it is not practice that makes the master but perfect practice makes the master.
- Everyone needs a coach. Those players aren’t out there by themselves and we are not in this life by ourselves.They have people to develop their skills, draw up plays and evaluate their performance. All of us need people in our lives to evaluate us on the court of life. With each passing day I am learning the value of having people that can speak into my life and that I will actually listen to. They are making me better.
Who did you have winning the NCAA Championship?
What life lesson have you learned?
I welcome your feedback.
Every year I make my annual pilgrimage to Daytona Beach, Florida for Bike Week. No year seems to be a good year to go with the demands of my schedule but I find a way to get there on Wednesday and to return home on Saturday so I can be back in the pulpit Sunday morning to preach. This year was no exception. After driving all night I checked in at the hotel in Palm Coast and early Thursday afternoon started riding. As usual, the ride was an amazing outlet. I thought I’d share some of the discoveries I had this year.
Scenery. Deciding to skip the fast route on Interstate 95, we made our way down to Route AIA, which is Ocean Shore Blvd. The view is breathtaking as you travel south for 20 miles or so through Flagler Beach, Ormond Beach and into Daytona. You are literally yards from the beach and ocean and during most of the ride you are looking toward the water in awe of the ocean and the beauty of nature. The only thing missing is the sound of the waves beating against the beach but the pipes on my bike won that war. It made me realize the importance of changing our scenery and our environments. Too often we become complacent and an occasional change in our lens is helpful for gaining an appreciation for all that life has to offer. Maybe it isn’t a ride in Florida but could just as easily be a stroll in the park, a day at the state park, a walk around a museum or an hour drive in any direction. We can be so busy moving fast that we neglect to enjoy the scenery and lose awareness of where we are going and why.
Stories. You have to go to Bike Week to appreciate it fully. But, every imaginable motorcycle is there and every type of rider. Everyone from laborers and lawyers, divas and doctors, executives and engineers, bankers and bakers, preachers and politicians, teachers and techies. We come from every state and many foreign countries. I could not help but to think, “man, we all have a story.” Some of us were there to run away and others were there to just get away. Some were divorced, some happily married and some widowers. Some had Ph.D.’s and others less than a GED. Yes, we all had stories. Isn’t that just like life? Everyone we encounter has some background, some past, some history with them. We should be careful in judging anyone. The important thing isn’t what you are riding or what you come from but rather the fact that you are still around to enjoy the ride and to finish telling your story.
Starts. I for one was there to start over in some areas of my life. As I rode and contemplated my life, the people in my life and the decisions of my life all I could think was this could be a defining moment for me. What if I could go back new, clearer, more resolute and more determined? What if I could begin again? Clearly, I couldn’t be the only one of over half a million bikers making some decisions as he rode. Life is that way. At some point what matters is our willingness to begin again. We all have the power of choice. We can choose to be different and we can choose to be better. And we can make that choice today.
Soul. Probably my favorite thing to do at Daytona is to go over to Mary McLeod Bethune Drive and hang out in the “hood.” This is unofficially called the “dark side.” The music, the food and the people watching can keep you busy for hours. It was my reminder not to neglect the soul. The soul houses our intellect, will and emotion. Spend some time catering to that part of you that feeds your personality. It’s ok to do your dance, hang with the folks and enjoy culture. Caesar Chavez, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Farm Worker’s Association said, “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”
Support. Twice while in Daytona I witnessed riders who dropped their bikes. You have to understand the bike I ride is almost 900 lbs. Many bikes are much heavier than that. Often when you drop your bike you need help to get it back up. I am always in awe of the bike culture and how we quickly run to each other’s rescue. No one cares why the bike was dropped. What we care about is getting that rider back up and on their bike. People will stop riding and begin to run to the succor of that other rider who almost invariably is a total stranger. Yes, some riders drop their bike because of their own neglect and other times because of poor judgment or uncontrollable road conditions. None of that matters to us. What matters is getting that bike up and making sure our fellow rider is able to go again. In life we all drop our bikes. Those bikes might be in the form of relationships, finances, health, reputation, careers, decisions or family. If we could adapt this same perspective of helping each other up rather than talking about why a person has fallen or ignoring their fall or even speculating how many other times they have fallen that we didn’t know about. Help somebody up. Get somebody riding again because after all one day you may drop your bike and when you do, wouldn’t it be great if someone just helped you up and left you with your dignity and hope for the future as you kept on riding.
What outlet do you have and what life lesson is it teaching you? I welcome your feedback.
The Eighth Commandment admonishes us not to steal. Embedded in this Biblical standard is the expectation that we obtain, achieve, possess. There are only three ways we can obtain anything. First, by gift. These are those possessions that we have done nothing to earn but someone has found us fitting enough and deserving enough of them. Air and water are two great gifts that we rarely think twice about and of course the greatest gift is our salvation. Second, by work. Work was created before Adam sinned and must never be viewed as a result of sin. Actually, it is a sin NOT to work. When we receive as a result of our work it produces a sense of self-worth and self-respect. We must be mindful that most of what we will ever possess comes by way of our working for it. Yes, occasionally I may get a good grade because the exam was graded on a curve (gift) but generally my grades in both the classroom and life are a result of our work ethic. We are entitled to very little in this life. Most of what we will experience and enjoy will be the result of sweat, labor, blood, tears and sacrifice. Finally, by theft. This is the whole reason for God telling us not to steal. In this life there will be moments when all the gifts have been opened and when we have acquired all we can through our hard work and gaps will still remain. When those gaps surface when our deepest longings and desires are yet to be fulfilled we must trust the timing of God. I am learning that acquiring by ill gain is far worse than not having at all. When these moments surface and they will for all of us, keep these five imperatives in mind and do your best to practice them.
Prioritize your time. We have all been allotted only so much time and even the longest life is short in view of eternity. A.W. Tozer once wrote, “Time is a resource that is nonrenewable and nontransferable… when it is lost it is unrecoverable. When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.” Achievement requires great time management. I am relentlessly working on getting everyone and everything that matters to me on my schedule. More and more I am learning that if I do not schedule it, it probably will not get done. I am also learning that idle time is still the devil’s playground. People that are busy doing things that matter don’t have time to do things they will regret.
Perfect your titles. We all have them, Janitor, Teacher, Doctor, Attorney, Husband, Wife, Student, Pastor, Christian, etc. As we take a step back to consider what these titles mean – the characteristics, expectations, demands and potential results – it will challenge us to recommit ourselves to be the best of it we can possibly be. Too often, we are more focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder having not steadied ourselves and mastered the rung we are on. Additionally, we must be careful not to claim titles we are simply not deserving of. Too often we exaggerate our accomplishments and apply it as a topical sedative over our failures and like of drive with the hope of numbing ourselves from the truth that we can do better and we have not earned it yet.
Participate with your talents. Each of us has been given very unique and specific gifts from God. My experience is people are successful in the area or areas they have been gifted to be successful in. Writers rarely become successful by playing athletics. Baseball players don’t become successful playing hockey. When we endeavor to gain our success in areas outside our place of giftedness or “calling” we steal the needed investment capital from the area of my purpose. Most of us need all the time and effort we can muster to achieve and rarely do we have the luxury of expending the time, energy or resources in other endeavors. I am convinced that each of us can live a good life when we identify and commit ourselves to a very unique role and specific assignment. You have something that is marketable to our society. Find it, focus on it and relentlessly invest in it and you.
Present your tithe. Obviously as a Christian I believe in giving ten percent of my income to God through a local church. The significance of this strategy is first to teach us about prioritizing our finances. It is to teach us that not all we attain or achieve is for us. It is to teach us that the real measure of our worth is not found in our money. It is to teach us that there are no free lunches and that each of us has a proportionate, proper and perpetual responsibility to give. Our achievement cannot be money motivated. Our earnings are a by-product of our calling but not the reason for our calling. I have often said, “I don’t Pastor to live but rather I live to Pastor.”
Publicize your testimony. Share your story because you have one. Our forward focused mentality can often rob us of the encouragement of our previous successes and the distances we have already traveled. It is true that although we may not be where we ultimately desire we are not where we used to be. Look in the mirror from time to time and speak to yourself about yourself and celebrate how far up the ladder you have gotten and let that be motivation for you and for others to take another step today.
Success like failure may not be an exact science but it is a deliberate one. Whatever you want in your life you must be intentional about it. If you intend on achieving you must be absolute about it.
What is your absolute for achievement?
I am a Christian. I am also a Political Independent. Technically, “unaffiliated.” Unlike the overwhelming majority of my friends, my family, and those I Pastor, I do not see my politics as a donkey or an elephant but rather as a lion. Partisan politics is damaging the American quilt. Slowly but surely threads are being taken out and individual parts are being discarded. What was once a melting pot, kaleidoscope and cornucopia of diversity is quickly becoming a nation of two quilts – “ours” and “theirs.”
From my laymen’s mind, all American politics is about one thing and one thing only – pie. Yes, pie. How often have we heard the expression, “as American as apple pie.” Politics is about making, baking, protecting, slicing and distributing pie. It’s amazing and disheartening how much we fight over getting our piece of the American pie. On the Republican Right you have a fight over not sharing the pie and on the Democratic Left great advocacy around making sure groups of people never participate in helping bake the pie. Jim Wallis was correct when he said, “the right gets it wrong and the left just doesn’t get it.” The Right is using the language of faith to hide their real political agenda and the Left is ignoring faith to hide their real political agenda. The Right is wrong for forgetting history. The United States has a long history of people of faith supporting and driving social change and driving progressive causes and movements. This is seen in the abolition of slavery, women’s right, public education, child labor law and civil rights. In other words faith is connected with social change. There is no record of people of faith being disconnected from social movements. Therefore, if your politics is devoid of conversations around poverty and social justice it is a perversion of your professed faith. There is nothing moral or Godly about not wanting to share the pie.
But the Left is no better. They are just wrong for a different reason. The separation of church and state does not mean abandoning morality from public life. To debate the issues around how the pie is sliced without respecting the pluralism of our democracy is ineffective and disingenuous. Yes, wage laborers, unions, educators, social servants and the unemployed should have a piece of the pie but the pie will never get distributed by mixing in “non-pie” issues. Probably the biggest “non- pie” interests are moral issues. So, while the Left works so hard on the issue of whether you should be able to eat your pie with a person of the same sex or whether you need a drug test before you can eat the pie or for how long you get to eat the pie for free, those they work so hard to advocate for still don’t have any pie. Rather than protecting the pie eating rights of those without drive and determination, legislate that everyone have the ingredients and access to an oven and wish them well on their pie making future. So, while the Right is legislating you don’t get a choice about the pie, the Left is legislating pies with no fillings and that never get put in the oven. Hello, everyone. This is America. We do pies here. We fill them, we bake them and everyone should have a slice.
This says nothing of all the other issues that both parties are inherently dishonest about – race, the poor, the penal system and how life is viewed just to name a few.
When the dust settles, until both the Left and the Right ratchet their way toward each other our nation will remain gridlocked. Since the solution is somewhere in the middle, wouldn’t make sense to just start there if you could? People in the middle can reach in both directions and grab those on the Left and the Right, forming coalitions and linkages that are far more reaching and rational. Our political system is institutionally stagnant. I find it interesting that the same nation that values advances and entrepreneurism has institutionally entrenched itself in a two-party political system. I thought we believed in and supported innovation? Evidently, in regard to everything but our politics. I for one still believe in the American dream, in innovation, and in the pie making opportunities for all people. As an Independent I have benefited by:
Critically thinking through political issues. The issues that face us are very complicated and we must be informed voters and not simply “big lever” voters. Not everyone of our color, race or political party is worthy of our vote.
Allowing my faith to help form my politics. As an Independent my vote is based on principles and beliefs and not party affiliation. Those that want absolute separation of church and state are in the minority. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has done extensive research on this issue and has determined, “people of faith and the institutions they build, play a critical role in our nation, and those contributions are not a purely private matter…”
Not allowing my vote to be paternalized. In other words no one owns or is entitled to my vote. It must be earned. One ray of hope for our nation is that there is an ever-increasing block of independent voters who sometimes vote one way and other times vote another and cannot be taken for granted by either party.
It keeps me more “centered.” We all have a tendency to disregard and discount those who disagree with us. This is how both parties wound up with factions that are now considered “extreme” sects of their own parties (this is also how we got the Tea Party).We now hear terms like “far right” and “far left.” I am learning that by listening to both groups of people it helps keep my personal political philosophy a lot more grounded and neutral. It is a form of self-correction that we all need to remain mindful and aware of the interests of others.
Whether you are Democrat, Republican or Independent, it is my prayer that we can identify those issues which we can agree on and exhibit common sense solutions to benefit the common good for our nation. I for one am reaching in both directions.
What is your political preference and why?
I Pastor a wonderful group of people in Rocky Mount, NC. One of the things I love about pastoring where I do is the appetite our members have for the truths contained in the Bible. If we look around it is very obvious by newspapers, television shows and music lyrics that truth is weaning in popularity. If truth were a person I can imagine her walking around homeless while trying door after door of people’s hearts, marriages and homes, finding no one to let her in. I can see Truth sitting in board meetings of major corporations being outvoted again by the board members of Greed and Personal Agenda. There Truth is again after having received her notice for jury duty being ignored while verdicts are rendered and guilty people go free and innocent people get convicted. Then there is the monthly trip to local, state and federal government agencies where Truth just doesn’t have a large enough lobbying check to even get a meeting with the right person. But there can be no greater frustration for Truth than her sitting in the pews of many of our churches on Sunday to never even be acknowledged as a visitor in church. I’m sure Truth has even tried to join but we just don’t accept members like her. We’d much rather have Mr. Politically Correct, Ms. Popular Opinion and Dr. I Know It All as members of our churches. Once again Truth is walking around our society in sincere desire of someone to give her some attention.
Every Sunday I preach in the pulpit at Word Tabernacle Church it is my desire that Truth gets a fair hearing. To that end I began this year preaching and teaching through the Ten Commandments. This past Sunday we were reminded that we should not commit adultery. Whether it is pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, pornography, homosexuality or lust God says we should not do that. Let me share a few truths regarding sexual intimacy.
Sex comes with a purpose. Water and sun are probably two of the greatest natural gifts God has ever given us. But when exposed to either inappropriately or excessively they both can be damaging. Most of us know someone who has drowned or been sun burnt. When someone buys you a pair of socks as a gift, it is understood that they don’t go on your head. That doesn’t make it a bad gift but is does make it a gift with a very specific purpose. God’s intent for sex was two-fold: propagation and pleasure. As long as we use it appropriately we will be ensured of both, but if we abuse the gift we will expose ourselves to unnecessary consequences and sorrows. This makes sense to me. If God established sexual relations between a married man and a married woman so that they can have more children and enjoy each other then physical relations between same sex people would obviously be considered an inappropriate use of the gift. If the purpose of something doesn’t matter, I often wonder why those who are in support of same sex unions don’t show up at marches and boycotts with shoes on their heads and hats on their feet?
Sex comes with principles. Sex is a gift. It is a gift that wasn’t created by society but rather the Sovereign. As a result God still gets to establish the rules. Most of us drive on highways to travel to buy food, clothing, attend school, work or church. We are forbidden (by law) to travel East in a Westbound lane or to drive the car from the rear passenger seat. These principles are good and are meant for our safety and to ensure our enjoyment. I am personally very convicted regarding how physical intimacy is being portrayed in front of us. I went through an informal exercise regarding the television shows I watch most frequently and in most situations physical intimacy is being portrayed in direct opposition to how God designed it. Generally we see couples that are same sex, unmarried or just “kickin’ it” and rarely loving examples of a man and a woman who are married. Please don’t hear me say that we should not enjoy the entertainment that we do but we must be careful that we do not allow the media to form our morality. A great example of this is probably the most popular show on television, “Scandal.” Yes, I admit it is engaging television and yes she wears some bad clothes and some hot coats and the themes are riveting. But we must recognize that it is entirely possible to be well educated, well connected, powerful and a “fixer” without sleeping with another woman’s husband.
Sex must be protected. We should maintain and manage the relationships God has given us. As singles we must respect ourselves enough and other people’s relationships enough to have a high standard regarding our physical intimacy. Married people must be committed in the relationship they are in. One of the best ways to protect this wonderful gift God has given us is by establishing ourselves spiritually, intellectually and emotionally with someone before we are physical with them.
This is my truth regarding sex. What is yours?
The human hearing process is quite interesting. Hearing occurs as sound enters the outer ear canal and causes vibrations of the tympanic membrane. It requires the synchronized functions of the outer, middle and inner ear. I am not an Otolaryngologist nor do I play one on television so in no way is this blog a scientific or medical treatise on the anatomy and physiology of the human ear. Quite to the contrary it is an emotional and social response to a perfunctory process that occurs so many times in a day none of us can count it.
One of the things I love about being a preacher is the sound of the response to preaching. I love hearing the myriad of responses that inevitably echo through the room “Preach Pastor”, “I know that’s right”, “You’re preaching well, Sir”, “Go ahead, G”. Those are sounds I will never forget.
Then there are times when conviction, introspection and self-evaluation produce no sound. Those moments when fear, doubt, confusion and shock grip us like a choke hold around the neck. I know this sound well it is called, silence. That is a sound I will never forget.
Then there is the sound of infectious, contagious laughter where the stomach begins to ache and the eyes begin to water. That sound when all the problems of this world are momentarily and certainly temporarily muted from our minds. The sound of joy, happiness, laughter. That’s a sound I will never forget.
“I love you.” That sound originating from the mouth of those we most care for, need and desire to share our lives. When life begins to smack us and circumstances refuse to release us this sound convinces us that we can bear it, believe for the best while going through it, and certainly endure it. That’s a sound I will never forget.
This past week I heard two more sounds that I will never forget. As I sat in my church office I heard the sound of multiple gunshots ringing out so close it was as if it were directly over my head. This was not a single shot of an innocent person protecting their home and their rights. Nor was this the shot from a police officer Glock or 9mm as they carried out their pivotal function in our society. This was the sound of hatred; the sound of criminality; the sound of disrespect for life; the sound of poor public policy; the sound of poverty; the sound of the power of wealthy lobbying; the sound of neglect; the sound of ignorance; the sound of miseducation; the sound of personal agenda; the sound of exploitation; the sound of materialism, the sound of violence; the sound of idolatry. Pop, pop pop, pop pop pop, pop. Just as I assumed the sound had ended, there was another. That’s a sound I will never forget.
Bullets don’t have names inscribed on them and although I never heard the sound of the bullet whistling through the air it would eventually have its trajectory slowed and its path altered as it found a detour in the bone, flesh and cranial matter of a 12 year old boy. This is a sound I will never forget. The sound of innocence meeting violence; the sound of exercise engaging evil; the sound of grace languishing to disgrace; the sound of the self fulfillment of rap music lyrics, “I came, I saw, I conquered, I shot you down. Your brain have no conscious, what you do now?” the sound of childhood colliding with corruption; the sound of forgetting how to talk; the sound of gasping for a breath; the sound of clinging to life; the sound of desperation; the sound of helplessness; the sound of confusion; the sound of chaos. These are sounds I will never forget.
What sound do you really hear when you hear gunshots? A new sound is needed. A sound that is greater; a sound that is longer lasting; a sound more prominent; a sound louder than the loudest and softer than the softest. The time has come for us to release a new sound in our communities. A sound that will ring glorious in the ears of our God and is proven to be for the common good. A sound of prayer, unity, forgiveness, justice and cooperation.
May we be reminded today that the sounds of our lives differ from moment to moment. May we be mindful of the sounds we can control – those we speak and those we chose to hear because some sounds will be those you never forget.
What sounds currently occupy and saturate your life and what sound are you forcing other people to live with? I welcome your feedback and responses.
It seems we are better at keeping “thanks” in Thanksgiving than we are at keeping “Christ” in Christmas. As a matter of fact we are pretty good at keeping the essential elements of most things. We don’t try to take the carbon out of diamonds, the matter out of physics or numbers out of mathematics. We know by taking the hydrogen from water it can no longer be called water, yet we seem to treat Christ as some optional part of the Christ + Mas formula. To remove Christ from Christmas is to remove him from his own birth, which would mean he wasn’t born, and of course he couldn’t have lived and couldn’t have died so then the Bible, would have no New Testament and we would all be trapped in our sins. Clearly Christ belongs in Christmas. Have you ever thought of the irony that we still want to sing, “Joy to the world”, “The First Noel” and “O Come all Ye Faithful” but then still endeavor to remove Christ? Our society has embraced this season as one of merchandising and parties. We tend to spend money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like in the hopes of getting something in return that we probably don’t need or won’t use. I am not quarreling over how you spend your Christmas but would rather like to give you some pointers on how to keep Christ in it.
Get a nativity scene. Mangers or nativity scenes can now be purchased very inexpensively. By placing one in a prominent area of your home or workspace like the middle of your dining room table, mantle or corner of your desk it is a reminder of the real meaning of this holiday.
Highlight Jesus. You could do this either by gift-wrapping Baby Jesus in the manger scene you just bought and having the family unwrap Jesus first because after all without Jesus there is no other gift that ultimately matters. Also, you could hide Jesus somewhere in your home and allow your first activity to be “seeking Jesus.” Either really reinforces the meaning of this holiday.
Limit gift giving. The tradition of purchasing gifts is supported by the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus. However, they did not bring multiple gifts to Jesus. They brought very thoughtful, meaningful gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. We spoil the sacredness and the thoughtfulness when it becomes more about the quantity of gifts and not the quality. Making and personalizing gifts is also a great way to give more meaningful gifts.
Give yourself. The greatest gift of Christmas is of course, Christ himself. When God determined to love us so much as to give his only begotten son, he was actually choosing to give himself. Things should never replace people. This is why even those who are financially struggling can have a glorious holiday because they always have the ability to still give themselves. Spending time as a family is one of the most precious experiences we have at Christmas. Last year it was actually December 26 that was one of our best days simply because we didn’t leave our home. We kept our PJ’s on ALL day and simply enjoyed each other.
Get a birthday cake. Why not? We are celebrating a birth. Sing happy birthday (I prefer the Stevie Wonder version) and let that be dessert.
Start something new. When Jesus was born it set in motion the means for us to become “new creations.” In my family, each year, we endeavor to come up with some “new thing.” One year we all received new PJ’s that we could open on Christmas eve. One year we all got the same book so we could read it as a family. One year we instituted a “stay at home” day. It could be something small and simple but do something new every year for Christmas.
Do something unexpected. Sometimes I wish that Christmas didn’t come every year. I know that makes me sound like a Scrooge, but there are moments when Christmas seems all too predictable. Christmas music in the Malls and stores sound all the same to me. The radio and TV commercials are so familiar. It’s not just the music and commercials that are predictable, but we behave in predictable ways as well. There are the usual office parties, concerts, school and church programs. Some of us could replace this month’s calendar with last year’s December schedule and it would be pretty much the same. The first Christmas was nothing like this. The first Christmas was a huge surprise. Everything about the first Christmas was totally unfamiliar, unexpected and for many people simply unbelievable. To really honor Christmas our focus should not be on tradition only but rather on something new, different and creative. Typically experiences are our greatest possessions.
Go to church. Say what? Every year we hold an actual worship service on Christmas day. I am certainly not anti Christmas eve services but I think most of us prefer celebrating our birthday on the actual day and not the day before. Why would we do less for Christ than we do ourselves? This has become one of the most prized activities of my life, my family and my Pastorate. You will be amazed how attending a worship service on Christmas day adds real meaning and real value to this season.
In what ways will you keep Christ in Christmas? I welcome your responses.
Admittedly, I am not a huge football fan although I do like the game. My point is I don’t like it enough to write a blog about it as I am far from an expert and certainly not a sports columnist. However, something occurred in professional football this past Monday night and I felt compelled to write about it. The irony is what occurred was probably more about what happened in the stadium than on the field.
As the Seattle Seahawks went about an easy defeat of the New Orleans Saints a sound was heard from the 68,000+ fans in the stadium. This sound was so loud it actually registered the equivalent of a 1 or 2-magnitude earthquake. The University of Washington operates a seismometer near the stadium that was able to register the stomping of the crowd as an actual earthquake. It reportedly was so loud in that stadium that another 12 more decibels would have resulted in ear drums beginning to rupture. This is the power of the twelfth man.
In a football game, each team is allowed eleven players on the field. When the fans in the stadium begin to harness their energy in the form of cheering, clapping and stomping, it results in the effect of an additional player being on the field, thus the term “twelfth man.” It teaches us that the presence of fans can have a profound impact on performance. It got me to thinking how much more productive our lives might be with the presence of people or several people who were there to encourage us, inspire us and motivate us. Too few of us have a cheering squad or a fan base to help keep us energized. Too often the activity on the sidelines of life can be that of criticism, cynicism and complaint. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” I am convinced that most people are just a single step or decision away from significant life change, yet just prior to taking the step they get discouraged. It is the presence of the twelfth man, that encourager, which will make the difference. Encouragement is so necessary that not even God leaves His will, anointing and his favor alone without it. I know that this is a possibly highly controversial statement but the Book of Acts proves this point. Barnabas was called the “son of encouragement” and he played a critical role in motivating others during the formation of the early church.
Consider these techniques to become that force of encouragement for someone or said another way, the playbook for the twelfth man:
Point. Point out what people are doing right and not just what they are doing wrong. Too often we are slow to speak when something is right but quick to speak when something is wrong. As you witness a person growing, making good choices or even their attitude improving, it is a motivator when you point it out to them. Words are very impactful. A kind and encouraging word can take a person far on their journey while a harsh word could be the proverbial nail in their coffin.
Pray. We can’t always be present with the people we desire to inspire nor can we always get them on the phone so when these times of physical distance are present, pray for them. I am learning that prayer transcends both place and time. A prayer that is whispered to God today may stay suspended in the atmosphere for years until God is ready to move on it. This means prayer is never a wasted activity. I do caution you to be honest regarding whom you are praying for. If you tell someone that you are praying for them, then please be praying for them. It is encouraging to know that others are sharing their personal God moments with us.
Purge. Take something off of someone. Discouragement is often a result of workload, fatigue and failure. Too often we stand idle gazing at the juggling act while never offering to take one of the balls up in the air ourselves. In similar fashion purging is about being careful what we add to the plate of other people. I am certain we can all think of many examples when someone else could have been asked and not the person we see who is already overloaded and burdened down.
I am convinced that many people who had great potential, promise and purpose never fully evolved into all that was possible because they were missing one thing – the twelfth man. The game changes when the encourager is missing.
Who has been your twelfth man and who are you the twelfth man for?
This past week I was asked to participate in, “A Night out with the Homeless.” To say this experience was eye opening is an understatement. Amongst other significant facts, I learned that there are 1,000 homeless people in the city I pastor in, Rocky Mount, NC. Even more alarming for me was learning that nearly 600 school-aged children arrive in classrooms each day in our local school systems that are homeless.
By its very nature, homelessness is impossible to measure with 100% accuracy. Studies suggest anywhere from one million to six million people are homeless in America with a large percentage of these being children. More important than knowing the precise number of people who experience homelessness is our progress in ending it.
As I conducted interviews alongside a local businesswoman, Jean Kitchin (Almand’s Drugs) and another Pastor, Bishop Shelton Daniel (Greater Joy Baptist Church), of the homeless that were present that evening I could not help but to be convicted as to how we as Christians don’t seem to feel the weight of caring for the people Jesus called, “the least of these.” It seems to me that we all have a responsibility to be better educated on the conditions, circumstances and plight of those both locally and globally who live in poverty. I was reminded how caring for the poor in our neighborhoods is an essential mission of the local church.
Each year, one week before Thanksgiving, National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness co-sponsor National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. During this week, a number of schools, communities and cities take part in a nationwide effort to bring greater awareness to the problems of hunger and homelessness. Locally, United Community Ministries and the Bassett Center under the leadership of Chris Battle brought this issue and this opportunity to us.
With the economic downturn, more and more people who do not fit the stereotype of homelessness are losing their homes. With the decrease in affordable housing and minimum wage not paralleling inflation, more people are fighting to survive and finding themselves below the poverty line. I know of no better way to fight poverty than with knowledge. Consider these facts:
- 1 in 6 people in America face hunger.
- Households with children reported a significantly higher food insecurity rate than households without children.
- Food insecurity exists in every county in America. In 2011, 17.9 million households were food insecure.
- 50.1 million Americans struggle to put food on the table.
- In the US, hunger isn’t caused by a lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty.
- More than 1 in 5 children is at risk of hunger (Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3)
- 40 percent of food is thrown out in the US every year, or about $165 billion worth. All of this uneaten food could feed 25 million Americans.
These seven states have statistically higher food insecurity rates than the US national average (14.7%):
North Carolina (17.1%)
Admittedly, I am not an expert on hunger, homelessness or poverty. I do seek to help begin a meaningful dialogue around how we fix these issues. I recognize there are many reasons for a person being hungry or homeless. Statistically, we are told homelessness is, in fact, caused by tragic life occurrences like the loss of loved ones, job loss, domestic violence, divorce and family disputes. Other impairments such as depression, untreated mental illness, posttraumatic stress disorder, and physical disabilities are also responsible for a large portion of the homeless. So, clearly this is a broad and complicated issue. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can help.
Educate. Business owners and elected officials can meet with the leadership of your local homeless shelter to become better educated on this issue and how you can specifically help.
Accommodate. Make low-income housing available. According to the United States Conference on Mayors the most commonly cited cause of homelessness for persons in families were lack of affordable housing.
Participate. When food drives and food challenges are given in your community make a food donation. Most of us have extra food in our freezers, cupboards and pantries. When your coupon allows you to buy one and get one free, give the “free” item to a person or family in need.
Cooperate. Financially give support to shelters. Churches can do this with a special offering or individuals can just privately donate or donate through the mission fund of your local congregation.
Communicate. Discuss this with your family. Too often our conversations around the dinner table lack depth. For many families, conversation has been replaced with television watching or texting. Once per month, identify a pertinent issue to discuss. Generally the calendar will make it easy as most social issues in our society now have a week or a month of national focus. Let a part of that conversation be a family resolution on what you specifically will do.
These thanksgivings as we indulge at home, take a moment to remember that not everyone will have food or shelter. Many people in your city will have their name placed on a waiting list to eat a hot meal or sleep in a warm and safe place. Could they be waiting on you?
What are your thoughts on the issue of homelessness and hunger?
The slogan, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing To Waste,” has remained unchanged for more than three decades. Launched in 1972 to encourage Americans to support the United Negro College Fund, this campaign has helped raise billions of dollars and has helped to graduate more than 350,000 minority students from college. One of my former mentors, now deceased Pastor, Congressman and UNCF President, William “Bill” Gray probably did more to champion these efforts than anyone in history. Now this slogan has become part of the American vernacular and the one that I blog about today.
In this writing I would like to encourage us to be diligent and intentional about not wasting our mind.
The mind is complex. Nerves reach from your brain to your face, ears, eyes, nose, and spinal cord… and from the spinal cord to the rest of your body. Sensory nerves gather information from the environment around you; send that information to the spinal cord, which then speeds the message to the brain. The brain then makes sense of that message and fires off a response. Motor neurons deliver the instructions from the brain to the rest of your body. The spinal cord, made of a bundle of nerves running up and down the spine, is similar to a superhighway, speeding messages to and from the brain at every second. In any given second there could be an accident on this “neurological superhighway.” Since the traffic is already heavy, it would be smart to be selective around what you allow to enter onto this highway.
The Bible is clear in it’s teaching that how a man thinks determines what manner of man he really is. Proverbs 23:7 tells us, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…“
John Milton, the famed 17th century English writer of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, wrote – “The mind is it’s own place and in the mind we can make heaven of Hell or hell from Heaven.”
The mind is very important! Whatever a person focuses his mind upon is what that person reproduces in his life! We need to monitor what’s on our mind.
Our thinking affects how we feel. In you are experiencing frequent emotional ups and downs, your feelings reveal where your mind is focused. Not only does our thinking affect how we feel, it determines our final destiny. How is this possible? Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become habits. Habits determine character. Character drives your destiny. In a very real way our thoughts become self- fulfilled prophesies so we must guard what we think about. Here are three “mind wasters” to be aware of:
Indifference is a waste of your mind
This happens when we refuse to think about anything. Our minds are muscles that must be exercised. As I travel nationally there seems to be an increase of people that simply don’t desire to build their mind. I am learning that we must “do the hard work” of not being idle in the mind. With the rise of social media, videos and television it is so easy to find us attracted to entertaining people who are also empty people. When I leave the home each day I put some effort into how I look. In the same way there should be effort put into what’s in and on our minds. If my shoes are filled with feet, my shirt filled with a chest, arms and a neck and my pants with a waste and hips and legs then shouldn’t my head be filled with a fully formed and functioning mind? Care about what’s on your mind.
Ignorance is a waste of your mind
I don’t know if there is a more fertile place for negativity and failure to incubate than in ignorance. My personal definition for ignorance is a “dark place in my mind.” It is difficult to make good, healthy choices if we are stumbling around in darkness. Yet, the moment light is introduced it changes my entire landscape. It is important that we develop our minds both wide and deep. There should be some areas of interest that we possess detailed information (deep) and there should be many areas that we know something about – enough to hold an intelligent conversation or at least ask a relevant question (wide). What little do you know a lot about and what a lot do you know a little about?
Inundation is a waste of your mind
To be inundated is to be overwhelmed or flooded by things or people to be dealt with. When the activity of our mind is more about what I am thinking about then it is about what I am doing with my thoughts then I have arrived at an unhealthy state of mind. Too often we get so absorbed and taken over by our thought patterns that it leaves us incapacitated and incapable of moving forward. Healthy thoughts don’t keep us in the bed feeling sorry for ourselves but rather motivate us to get out the bed and to do something significant with this life we have been given. The lowest form of our thinking is about people followed by events. The highest form of our thinking is around concepts and opportunities. Be careful when your thought life has you so preoccupied with individuals that there is no room for ideas.
Perhaps you can identify an activity or characteristic of a wasted mind. What are you doing to keep from wasting your mind? Please share in the comments area of my blog and thank you for reading.