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There have been seasons in my life of pruning.  We are likely all familiar with the character pruning that comes every so often.  It seems that pruning of my character has frequently been accompanied by some serious trial or testing.  My passing that test requires me to line up my character with what God is …

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While I was out harvesting what will likely be the last of my summer vegetables last week, my mind wandered to what life must have been like when people really lived off the land.  There are the obvious differences: no smart phones, online games, rushing about, or hauling kids to four practices in one night!  Life was difficult, as providing for one’s family from the land requires hard, manual labor and facing great difficulties.  However, life was, in a word, simple.  It revolved around family, community and church.  People knew their neighbors and helped when they needed it.  People were connected and community meant something.

So, how do we find this simplicity in today’s hustle-bustle world?  Does it require us all to leave our desk jobs and work the land?  I think not.  Even more importantly, how do we teach our kids to value family, faith and community?  We have to find that path for ourselves, as adults, and then model it or our children.  I’ve thought of some basic things that we can all do to simplify life while also improving their involvement in communities.

  1. Serve the community.  Volunteer at a local nonprofit, get involved with outreaches into the community, or serve with your church.  Many communities have organizations that funnel volunteers to smaller nonprofits.  So, find something you care about and get involved in that.  For families with young kids, this can be difficult as many nonprofits do not allow young children to serve with their parents.  Here are a few ideas though: walk dogs at the local Humane Society or pet adoption center; collect canned goods from neighbors to give the local food pantry (call first to get their wish list!); collect spare change for an overseas orphanage (my kids are doing this for Joseph School in Haiti); find a less-well traveled road or a park and clean up all the trash; or ask older neighbors if you can rake their leaves.  Be creative and do it together.  You will make memories and teach important principles to the kids.  And remember to celebrate their achievements afterwards with some serious family high-fives.  If you want more ideas on this topic, see my blog titled “Serving With Kids.”  http://wp.me/p1FAtE-1o
  1. Live on a budget.  Most people have to do this anyway in the last few years because of income issues or job loss, but even those that don’t have to should do it.  Why?  Living on a budget forces us to make decisions about how we will live each month.  Living on a budget makes us set priorities as the adults in the household and helps us all to work together toward a common goal.  Set a financial goal for each year and work as a family to achieve it.  Maybe the goal will be to repay a certain amount of debt, give a special offering for a favorite ministry, or just put money away for a rainy day or kids’ education.  Whatever the goal, keep the kids informed on progress and celebrate as a family when you make it.  This also teaches the kids that money is something to be managed and stewarded –and that it doesn’t grow on trees.
  1. Eat at home whenever possible.  Even single people can do this easily with the proliferation of healthy 30-minute meal cookbooks and single-serving recipes available on the internet.  And for families, I know what you moms must be thinking, “How can we possibly make dinner with all those activities?”  Perhaps, we should examine if the kids really need to be in all those activities – maybe something needs to leave the family schedule?  Having dinner together helps kids realize that you care about them.  It gives them the perfect time to discuss their day, ask questions about what is going on in the world (or in their world), and helps them know you value them.  It also sets up good eating habits for later and helps to fight obesity (home-cooked food is generally less fattening and more healthy than fast food).  I have become the master of the 30-minute healthy recipes and I have about ten that I regularly make.  The kids have their favorites and they know beyond a shadow of doubt what is healthy and what isn’t.  And let me make a quick point about what most of you will need to do first – because it was the first thing I needed to learn also.  The most liberating moments in my life have been when I have said “no” to something: either another activity or some commitment.  Learning to say no in an appropriate and strategic manner can help us to bring simplicity to our lives.
  1. Be engaged in your local church or synagogue.  Faith communities help cement values for our kids as they see other families living by the same values they see at their house.  These communities also give our kids the opportunity to make friends that have those same values and to see the role of the church in the community.  When Nashville experienced the flood in 2010, my kids got to see the church in action, serving the community and helping with those who had been flooded.  They still talk about it over 18 months later.
  1. Start a backyard garden or sew some of the kids’ clothes.  Not everyone is a gardener, like I am, and I am not a seamstress.  That is why Wal-Mart exists in my life.  Gardening, sewing, knitting or other types of “home economic” activities helps kids to see that food doesn’t come in a can or plastic container and that clothes aren’t so easy to make either.  This helps them appreciate what they have and the effort that went into making it.  Teach them how to do what you do also.  Those are skills they can enjoy for the rest of their lives, and may come in handy sometime in their lives.  Our great great-grandparents probably had no idea that their kids and grandkids would face such a terrible depression in the 1930’s.  We cannot possibly know what our kids will have to face either.  Teaching them a basic skill like gardening, knitting or sewing might make a huge difference in their lives later and help see them through difficult times.
  1. Turn off the electronics or at least the TV for a weekend.  I know this will be a real shock to some to not have the Blackberry or iPhone constantly buzzing at you.  Slowing down our thinking is one of the critical ways of training our minds toward discipline and the constant noise of our culture works in the opposite direction.  Our never-ending, in-your-face communication and the prevalent media addiction are breeding an impatient generation.  I even caught myself tapping my toes in impatience at the microwave one time. So how am I combating this in my own life?  I regularly go on an “electronics fast” – no phone, TV, computer / laptop, or radio.  You know what I find?  I go to sleep earlier, enjoy a good book or time with the kids, pray, get outside or catch up on household chores.  I also find that I am not enslaved to the email, text, or phone communications and that I am more peaceful in my interactions with the kids, even when not practicing this discipline of a fast.  It is really liberating.  You should try it for a day!

I hope these helped you to find ways to simplify your own lives.  Try one and let us know how it impacted in your life.  There are many other ways that I have not listed here, so if you have a life-simplifying strategy, please share it.

I am growing in this and find the more I do to simplify, the better I am hearing from God.  All the noise and clutter of our lives crowd out the still small voice of the One who knows us best and loves us most.  If the only benefit of simplicity in our lives is that we come to know God better, I would say it is worth it.

I really am not sure which is worse from a practical standpoint, ignoring local resources or ignoring the people in the community.  Probably ignoring the people from a Biblical standpoint, as God always wants us to value people greater than things.  But practically speaking, #4 and #3 are really more like a tie for third.  Just like ignoring local resources and potentially putting local businesses into difficult situations (like you bringing in something they sell and giving it out for free), ignoring the opinions and ideas of the people you are trying to serve can really end up back-firing big time.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.  The names and locations are fictional to protect any possible guilty, naive and innocent groups that might have done something similar. Say there was a group in Adelaide, Australia that was serving “HIV orphans” in Thailand.  They didn’t speak the language, but had found someone who they thought seemed trustworthy to serve as the local representative for them in a novel orphanage concept.  They sent money and teams to work with this individual and the orphans they had gathered, but didn’t attempt to meet or interact with other leaders in the community.  Years passed and the Australians found out that their representative was stealing from them, that the “orphans” weren’t really lacking parents but had been trafficked by their local representative, and that the community and its leaders questioned their work and their motives.  They had made a colossal error without realizing it, even thinking they were doing a great job.  It took an intervention from several community leaders who came into the situation to provide wisdom and cover for the Aussies.
If this situation were true, this group might have been in serious trouble with the local authorities (who may have thought they were child sex traffickers!) because they had not taken the time to develop better relations with the community they were serving.  If they had, they could’ve found out the reputation of their local representative and heard about what was really happening with their funds.  We could only hope for a good end to the fictional story because of their heart to serve true orphans.

So, how can we avoid this mistake?

  1. Actively pursue peer-leader relationships with multiple community leaders where you are serving.  Make sure you have a relationship with people from several churches or religious institutions, other nonprofits working in the area, political leaders and other influential community leaders – if only just to check in from time to time and find out what they think of your work and to ask other open-ended questions.
  2. Conduct a community needs survey.  Ask lots of questions about what people and leaders in the community think their main needs are and how these can be addressed.  Often you will find the best ideas come from within the community.  The community simply might not have the capacity to address those needs well from within – or may just need someone to help catalyze and coordinate a project.
  3. Ask open-ended questions when you get time with local community leaders or when conducting that community needs survey.  Questions like, “What do you think are the main issues facing the community now?” or “How do you think we could improve our work?” or “What trends do you see in the community?”  Asking open-ended questions generates discussion and ideas.  Open-ended questions also demonstrate your desire to hear their opinion.
  4. Share your plans while you are still in the research or planning phase.  After you’ve done a community needs survey, let the leaders in the community know the results and the main need that your group will be working to solve.  Then ask for their ideas on how to approach that issue – and maybe what else other groups have done that didn’t quite work as well as hoped.  Find out why past projects failed and what their ideas are for successfully addressing that need.  Take your time and don’t rush straight to a project without making sure to know the history in that area.  If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
  5. Listen.  Listen to the community leaders, listen to your project’s beneficiaries, listen to people on the street.  If you get in the habit of #3, asking open-ended questions, then listening to what people tell you can reveal a lot.  If there is a language barrier, take a translator or learn the language yourselves.  Even halting attempts at another language (then turning to a translator for help!) go a long way to developing authentic relationship with the people you are serving.

The bottom-line is that we can’t act like we are the ones with all the answers, telling “those poor people” how to solve their problems.  This is a phenomenally arrogant and un-Christ-like attitude that, if we are really wanting to serve like Jesus did, we will shed.  Humility goes a long way on the path of success for community service!

I think it fitting on my fortieth birthday (wow, did I just write that?!) to reflect a bit on what forty years of life have taught me.  I was a really stupid 20-something at one time, so I can identify with those who might like to learn from their elder’s mistakes – I made plenty of them.  Hopefully this will save someone else the heart-break and stress of some of my mistakes.

  1.  “You ain’t all that and a ball of wax.”  And no, I’m not quoting a popular music artist; that is what my grandmother used to say.  If there is one thing I wish I would’ve learned sooner, it is this: that life really isn’t about me.  There are 6 billion people floating around on a ball of dirt whizzing way too fast for my comfort through an insignificant galaxy in the middle of an insignificant corner of the universe.  So I’ve realized this is what I need to do: sit down, be humble and listen to some people who have some grey hair.  They might know something.  You should try it – I’m still listening because I don’t have enough grey hair yet.  So, then, what is the point of life, if not to seek your own benefit?  We must give life away for it to gain any sort of meaning.  God wired us for relationship – with God and with each other.  And the best way to relate is to listen to someone else’s story and add value to their life.  When we add value to others, we add value into our own lives automatically.
  2. “Life is like a box of chocolates” – Forrest Gump.  It really is.  Some days are like the cherry cordial (my favorite) and others are like coconut cream (which makes me want to gag).  Take the good days in stride, don’t think too highly of yourself in those times (#1 again) and be thankful that there are seasons in life.  The bad days never last forever, but like coconut creams there are a few in every box.
  3. “No one ever died wishing they had spent more time at work.” – unknown.  The biggest regret most people have on their deathbed is that they have family relationships that are in ruins – and that they no longer have the time to make them right.  So, prevent that now.  Mend relationships in your family; spend time with your loved ones and make sure they know you love them; and above all, be the first to apologize.  Really, make it a race.  Remember, you ain’t all that anyway and some days are coconut creams, so it won’t hurt you to apologize – even when you KNOW you are right.  Forgiveness goes a long way too.  Remember, just because you forgive someone else doesn’t make what they did right.  Forgiveness simply releases you from the grip of bitterness and releases that person into God’s hands.  And forgiveness is a choice, not an emotion.  Emotions will line up AFTER you choose to forgive.
  4. “He who gives the most away while he is still living wins.” – unknown.  The Pharaohs used to take all their treasures to the grave, only for some twentieth-century archaeologist to dig it up and put it in a museum.  Meanwhile, there was probably a son or daughter or cousin who would’ve put it to better use.  You can’t take gold with you  – and besides, why would you want to bring heaven more street paving material (remember, streets paved with gold!)?  So, give it away while you can.  This applies to more than just money – give your time, your talent, your treasure and, most importantly, yourself.  Give a shoulder to cry on, a hand for strength and a strong back to help clean up.  Give until it is hard, ask God for help and realize that you can never out give God.  I dare you to try.

 

I’m sure there is more I’ve learned, like integrity matters more than anything else in life and to always let your spouse and kids know you love them every day.  But, I’ve said enough for 40.  Now, I’ll let those who know more speak too and I’ll sit down and listen.

I haven’t seen the WWJD bracelets in a while, so I was wondering the other day if people still gave thought to what Jesus would do if He were here in our situation today. Then I heard a major political figure talk about how Jesus would serve the poor and though I didn’t agree with everything he said, I did have to say a silent, “Amen, brother.” We can look at what Jesus did through the lens of the gospels to get an idea of what we should do as His followers, because after all if we are following someone, we should do what they do, right?

So, here is a non-theological and non-scientific summary of Jesus’ activities from the “action” gospel writer Mark:
Healing from disease or Deliverance from demons: 22 times
Teaching crowds: 19 times
Teaching disciples: 21 times
Arguing with Pharisees, rulers or others: 10 times
Providing food / money/other provisions: 5 times
Praying: 8 times

In some of the accounts in the gospel Mark, several activities are recorded, as when (in Mark 2) Jesus was teaching a crowd inside a house and young men lowered their crippled friend through the roof, Jesus healed him and then argued with the Pharisees who were also present. But from this simple analysis, a few things are clear:
1. Jesus took time to minister to others – whether it was through teaching, healing, providing for their needs or praying for them, Jesus loved people and spent the great majority of his ministry time on Earth with them.
2. Jesus met physical needs through healing and providing materially for people.
3. Jesus faced great criticism, yet continued to do what God, his Father, had called him to do.

Jesus was all about people and we, as His followers, should be about people too. How can you follow Jesus’ example and serve others in your life today?

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