Moments planted yield the fruit of memories

Members of the Rio, WI high school graduating class of 1971. Not a bald head among them.

Confession up front: before my 50th high school class reunion in June I looked over my year book to reacquaint myself with the names – and cherubic faces – of those from my class who might appear. 

Having delivered our graduates’ speech as valedictorian of our 53-member class five decades earlier, I was asked to “say a few words” on this very convivial night, decades past the gateway to a dream that seemed to open to us in 1971. We’re also decades past having to color our palette of life, careers, marriages, successes or failures in hues that confirmed that we’d “made it.”

So, I talked about “making it,” and memories.

Members of our class were born in 1952 or 1953. I mentioned notable characters born in those years, including Vladimir Putin, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson, George Strait, Floyd Mayweather, Mr. T and Roseanne Barr, Hulk Hogan, Cyndi Lauper, Pierce Brosnan and Tim Allen.

We remember these politicians and entertainers because in our minds and in our culture, they “made it.” They are rich and famous, at the top of their respective fields. Say their names and people know who you are talking about. 

“Did we make it?” I asked. “Are we making it?” 

I was pleased to hear an immediate “Darned right,” from Jerry, our star athlete who was an all-conference football player in college and who has concluded his career in insurance, primarily among farmers in two counties.

No matter what we think “making it” means, I know we all have a different perspective on that than we did 50 years ago – or even 20 years ago. Success? Riches? Fame? Security? Family? Love? Inventions? 

My 1971 high school graduation picture. Naive, hopeful, eager.
Fifty years of sandblasted life later, mostly in Baptist communications.

Except for seven months, I’ve never lived closer than 600 miles from either my parents or my in-laws. My quest to “make it” took me from state to state. I’ve lived twice in Texas, twice in Oklahoma, twice in Colorado, in Tennessee and now North Carolina. My daughter was six when we moved to North Carolina and North Carolina was her fourth state to live in. 

I came home annually to visit – and as long as my dad lived, Rio was always “home.” For the longest time, I thought “making it” meant anything away from Rio, population 788. My dad always told me Rio’s population stayed at 788 because any time a young woman had a baby, an older man left town. 

Looking across the room I saw vibrant senior adults, many of whom never left the area, and all of whom have “made it.” They stayed, invested themselves, coached the local teams, served on the school board, nurtured the children of other families, and offered their voices of wisdom among their peers. They’ve been important to many lives. 

Reunions are the fertile soil in which the seeds of memory planted much earlier blossom and flower. We harvested those blooms at our 50th.

We remember moments, rather than days, as philosopher Cesare Pavese said. We all have memories of high school. Some we share, others are unique because none of us lived the same life. And the best part of those remembered moments are the people we shared them with.

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me.”

And we want to be known. And remembered. Someone has said you die twice: first, when your heart stops and you’re buried. The second time you die is the last time someone says your name… whether it’s a year, a decade, or a century.

So, I named the seven members of our class who are with us no longer. They remain alive in our memories. 

Then we had fun recalling not only the names of our teachers, but some of their idiosyncrasies: the teacher/coaches who helped athletes with grades; the biology professor we called Bernard the Monk because of his curly bowl haircut and demeanor; the English teacher who the girls always felt was peeking up their skirts.  

Gas was only 33 cents a gallon at Bleigh’s service station during high school. I’d drive across town to the Farmer’s Union Co-op if it was 32 cents there. Of course, “across town” was less than a mile, with one stop sign.

Janis Joplin was singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and “The French Connection” competed with “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Dirty Harry” for your $1.50 movie admission. 

Living in the south now, I told the class every region has its rednecks, but southerners are special. You know you’re a redneck in the south when you take your dog for a walk and you both use the same tree. Or, when grandma’s wish list includes ammo. Or when you think “The Nutcracker” is something you do off the high dive.

One anomaly I noticed was that not a single person in the room was bald. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, male pattern baldness at some level affects more than 50 percent of all men.  It stands to reason that someone would be bereft of hair. 

Perhaps humorist Garrison Keillor’s observation of his little hometown of Lake Wobegon – the model of which easily could be Rio, WI – is right. There, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

For all of you who are having reunions and special functions, blessings on every classmate and friend who has “made it” this far. May you have many more years to be a positive influence in your children – who always need their parents – and their children, who more desperately need the positive influence of grandparents now than ever before. 

These are the people of our lives, thrust together by time and circumstance, calling up the memories created by moments together. I’m grateful for them. 

How much does that cost?

My grandkids are of the age where they want to know the cost of everything.“How much did you pay for that, Papa?”They’re making a few bucks and are probably calculating subconsciously how many weeds they’d have to pull to earn enough to buy whatever “that” is. 

If we go out to eat, they scan the menu for cost – not that they buy low to save me some money, but they like to know how much Papa is willing to pay to feed them!

“Can I have sprinkles, and whipped cream, and two scoops?” says the clan when not considering the cost of their ice cream treat!

My youngest local grandchild, CJ, suggested this week that I could buy two Tesla automobiles. “My parents say they could afford one, and you have more money than they do, so you could buy two.”

CJ and his siblings are in a stage where they want at least one of everything they see. Whether it’s a car, truck, gun, bicycle, house, shoes, computer, camera, watch, lawn mower or the crumbs from a chocolate chip cookie left on the counter, they declare “I want that.”

To their great credit, their parents, Erin and Benji, don’t fend off the wish whines by saying, “We can’t afford it.” That’s the handy, but shallow, phrase I employed when my kids leaned over the same deep well of wishing.

The truth is, then as now, we could afford some of the shiny baubles the kids see and agitate for, but we’re not going to buy them for a variety of reasons. Primarily, we know the sparkling object that captures their attention today will be fish wrap tomorrow. They don’t need it. It’s not a priority, even if we could afford it. It’s not healthy, or good for you. 

I used “We can’t afford it” because it was simple, and even a kid can understand it. It quickly ended most begging and whining. But, I realize now, it also ended rational discussion about needs versus wants, cost versus value. And, it left the impression on their young minds that we were poor. 

But Erin, a school teacher, and Benji, a fireman, don’t blow off their kids’ accumulation fantasies like that. For some things, they agree and say, “That would be nice, but it’s not in the budget now.” 

Or, “We could afford to get that, but it’s not a priority. We have other things that are more important.” They know that today’s “gotta have it now” item will have a new identity tomorrow.

I remember when I learned my dad made the astounding figure of $250 a week. It was the mid-1960s and I was with him after hours at the local Farmer’s Union Cooperative, where he managed the store. Trying to comprehend the magnitude of that dramatic weekly windfall made me wonder why I always felt we lived marginally. 

“That’s $50 a DAY,” I exclaimed. “What in the world do you do with all that money?”  

While I remember that moment clearly, I also remember it as a rare instance in which dad appeared upset. He didn’t yell, but his jaw was set as he realized for the first time I had no clue about money and the cost of living.

Rather than explain in detail why $250 a week, with four kids at home, really wasn’t that much money, he mumbled something about my failure to understand currently, “But you’ll learn.”

With seven grandchildren – like the computer network in the Terminator movie – becoming “self-aware,” I’m having plenty of opportunity to rationalize just how much to share about the cost of things, how much to help them fund their own little projects, how easy or hard to make it on them to achieve their goals of saving for “this” or “that.”

Ultimately though, my primary role is not to help them understand the cost of things, but to support their parents in guiding them to understand their value. Some things that carry a great cost, have little value. Some things available for small cost have great value. 

All future is uncertain and I don’t “worry” about what it holds. I know that any child who learns the value of things will have no problem in bearing their cost. 

Pickleball: Funny name, great game

I was first exposed to Pickleball, four years ago when I stood in line at a local school to vote. Through windows into the gymnasium, I saw some old folks whacking a plastic ball over a net using an oversized ping pong paddle. 

I asked someone what those white-haired men and women were doing, and was told they were playing Pickleball. Odd name. Fun game.

Pickleball, which advocates claim is America’s fastest growing sport, is like a ping pong game in which you get to run on the table! Given the rate of Pickleball court construction, and tennis court conversions, they may be right. 

It’s played on a downsized tennis court, the same as that for badminton, and the ball is like your childhood whiffle ball. The paddle is hard, solid plastic, double the size of a ping pong paddle.

Last winter on vacation in Florida, my buddy and I watched Pickleballers and agreed it looked like fun, even if not quite as athletic an endeavor as we considered appropriate for us. We agreed we’d continue to play singles tennis until age 70, then doubles tennis until age 80, and then, well…Pickleball.  

In preparation for our January vacation this year, I bought a couple cans of tennis balls, packed my rackets, and threw in a Pickleball paddle in case we wanted to piddle around with that. 

My tennis rackets were never unpacked and we played Pickleball two hours a day. What a blast!

While the game is a blast, my buddy and I discovered the Pickleball community is the best part of the game. Just novices, we grabbed our paddles and were walking toward a court to figure out the game together when we saw a bunch of players already on another court. We simply asked if we could join them and they welcomed us immediately. 

If you have any eye-hand coordination and are athletic at all, particularly if you’ve played tennis, you can pick up Pickleball quickly, which is one of its attractions. And the characteristics of the game and equipment are a skills equalizer. We played with folks a decade older and 30 years younger. 

Pickleball has its own set of quirky rules and score keeping but the players patiently guided us through some initial games. I’ll not get into “the kitchen.”

In this community, bad shots are rarely criticized, or even commented upon, unless it’s, “That’s the right idea,” or “Good try,” or “Darn wind.” Good shots are complimented – by both partner and opponent – and if you manage to hit one, you’ll feel like a million bucks. 

After a rally of 10-12 quick shots, both sides appreciate the “good point” whether they won or lost it. As one player said, “No one remembers who won the last game.” Players switch partners and play another game. Suddenly you’re playing against a person you just played with, and it’s all good. 

If you’re waiting for your turn on the court, you volunteer to gather up the balls lining the fence that are out of play.  

The “poc, poc, poc” of a plastic ball caroming off a solid, composite paddle is a different sound from the “thunk” of a tennis ball off a strung racket. The Pickleball ball doesn’t bounce as much, which gives you an extra step to get to it. A windy day makes it even more interesting, as the ball is light, and it provides everyone a built-in excuse for a shot that flies awry. 

Like the promoters say, the game is fun, fast and friendly. Leagues pop up everywhere and I’ll bet you have at least one in your community. If not, just wander by the once-seldom-used tennis courts and listen for the “poc, poc, poc” of a whiffle ball. Hang on the fence looking like a hungry child and you’re almost guaranteed to be welcomed in to play

Would that all life’s interactions could be so pleasant. 

Extra Money

For decades into our married life, my budget-faithful wife Sue Ellen would ask, “When are we going to have extra money?”

As frugal as she is, she never willingly accepted my answer: “We will never have ‘extra’ money,” I said, “if by ‘extra’ you mean funds beyond what we require to take care of immediate needs and future retirement.”

In part because my career was in non-profit and denominational work, and in larger part because of my upbringing, molecules of frugality bang around in my DNA loud enough to keep me awake should I spend a dollar frivolously.

My parents first met my wife when they came to our wedding. No great story of family dysfunction in that fact, just issues of time and distance. I lived in Oklahoma. Sue Ellen lived in Colorado. My family lived in Wisconsin. And, we married in New Mexico after just a two-month engagement.

So, the summer after our wedding I brought my new bride to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. My wonderful, doting mother offered us a Pepsi, back in the days when we disrespected our bodies enough to drink carbonated sugar water. We said, “Sure,” and mom dutifully divided a single soft drink into four glasses, one each for me, Sue Ellen, mom and dad.

Later, mom offered a candy, from a bag of pink Brach’s mints. And gave us each one.

In the days when the only telephones were connected to each other through an intricate – and reliable – system of land lines, long distance calls were considered expensive and mom recorded each one made, to check it against the monthly bill. After a visit during which I had to make a call or two, mom sent me the bill for those calls – about 10 dollars.

I grew up on a farm with several out buildings, one of which mom transformed into her storage shed. In it were lawn chairs that needed re-webbing, a grill with rusted bottom, various non-functioning toasters, umbrellas, coffee pots, and kitchen appliances. She wasn’t recycling, she was storing these items against a day when they would miraculously spring back to life.

My dad, who once sprung for a brand new 1959 Ford Galaxy, later bought the more elegant Mercurys that our local leading businessman sold after he’d driven them a couple of years. Our little Ford Ferguson tractor, which never had working brakes, dated from the 1940s, was probably 20 years old when dad bought it and he used it at least 30 years – when it started.

When the 1948 Ford pickup I learned to drive on gave up the ghost, dad had the box cut off and made into a trailer – which I pulled with the tractor for countless hours while picking up stones in the fields.

When I needed to drive that trailer and tractor without brakes down the road to the dump, I learned to manipulate the throttle and gear shift to slow sufficiently enough that I never ran into anything that didn’t need to be run into. 

So, my frugality is well earned.

Consequently, when my young children sang their relentless chorus of “I want, want, want, need, need, need, please, please, please,” my most frequent response was, “No, we can’t afford it.”

Admittedly, that excuse was my fall back to avoid drawn out explanations of our standards, versus the Joneses because in some instances we could have made the purchase. I just didn’t want the kids to be caught up in that “gotta have it because Suzy has it” burn cycle.   

The best pizza we ever ate in our house was the weekly Friday special Sue Ellen made to devour while we watched a movie in the wonderful world of VHS and Blockbuster. There was no TV during the week for us, so when we popped in Karate Kid, or Back to the Future or Flight of the Navigator, it was a special time made more special by the rectangles of crispy thin crust topped with pepperoni, hamburger, cheese and jalapenos.

On rare occasions, however, I’d give Sue Ellen a break and splurge for a ready made pizza for our Friday night extravaganzas. It was a splurge, but one night when I was feeling especially generous I ordered bread sticks to go with the pizza. I realized that night how our kids labored under the wet blanket of our frugality when the oldest son saw the bread sticks and exclaimed, as surely did Aladdin when entering the Cave of Wonder, “Wow, dad must be doing really well.”

I long for the days when I could impress my kids for a buck.

Play the music, not the notes

classical-music-1838390_960_720 (2)We enjoyed an orchestra at church Sunday, to accompany our choir and lift our spirits with the resounding crescendo that instruments provide. I noticed that orchestra members get involved with the music at different levels.

The first chair violinist sat on the edge of his seat, one foot behind him, leaning toward the music stand. Every stroke of his bow pulled his body left and right. His head moved up and down, his mouth close to the instrument as if whispering, coaxing it to produce glory like a jockey leaning over a horse’s neck, urging it to go faster, harder.

Fingers on his left hand pressed the strings in various combinations against the instrument’s neck and his hand shimmied to draw forth a plaintive vibrato.

Two rows behind him another violinist played, a young man not yet as accomplished, not yet as sure. He sat stiffly in his chair, leaning toward the music stand as if he couldn’t quite make out the notes. The bow was more an implement in his hand, rather than an extension of his own fingers. Nothing moved as he played except his arm and the bow.

He was just playing the notes. The first violinist played the music.

When I played baritone in the high school band I practiced hard for the annual competition at which a judge would listen, grade us and grant an appropriately colored ribbon – blue for A, red for B, white for C. White was kind of a “thanks for coming” award.

Eager and ready when my time came to play, I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and ran through those notes perfectly. Didn’t skip or misplay a single note. Hit them all in tune and on time. And got a white ribbon for the effort.

Shocked, I looked at the judge, my face begging a reason. “Anyone who practices can play the notes,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to interpret the music.”

I just played the notes. I missed the music.

An old story tells of a curious lad coming to the site of an enormous construction project in his medieval village. He wandered from workman to workman, each busy with his various tasks, and asked them what they were doing.

The first wiped his brow, grunted impatiently and said, “I’m sawing timbers for cross beams.”

The second didn’t pause from his work pouring mud into forms, scraping off the excess and lifting heavy weights onto a trailer. “I’m making bricks,” he said with a scowl.

The third, when asked, paused, looked over the construction site with exposed beams and holes for windows and the nascent beginnings of a spire reaching into the sky and told the boy, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Our Bible study class was in Romans 7. There, the Apostle Paul encourages the new church in Rome to realize the law is no longer their standard for living. They have died to the law, as Jesus died to free them from it. Instead, they are to live in freedom, under grace.

That is our charge, to live under grace. To live in freedom. Ours is not a check box religion: Don’t smoke. Check. Don’t lust. Check. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Check. And on and on and on, each box a note, each check mark a note played.

The goal of Christian living is not to check the boxes, to just play the notes.

To live under grace is to play the music.

 

 

 

 

Can a consultant help your stewardship efforts?

‘It was different because it was better’

It takes more than a tithing sermon from Malachi 3:10 to create an effective annual stewardship campaign in your church.

The question is, if you’re going to do more – if you’re going to approach your annual giving emphasis like a real campaign – can you do it by yourself?

Let’s assume your goal is to do more than prod your members to meet a budget. You want to teach stewardship and lead them to grow in the spiritual discipline of generosity.

That requires more than a single sermon and an all church mailing of pledge cards.

An effective effort requires a major time commitment to plan calendar, enlist volunteers, establish committees, design materials, produce mailings, conduct meetings and prepare appropriate sermons. And, the pastor and staff are expected to do all of this while keeping all their other ministry plates spinning.

Is it wise to engage the help of a professional consultant if you want your annual stewardship effort to be more than, well, more than an annual stewardship effort?

Two pastors of churches that recently conducted highly successful annual stewardship campaigns utilizing a resource development consultant confessed that they could not do it all.

Davis Chappell, pastor of the 8,000-member Brentwood United Methodist Church near Nashville, TN realized he had “so many wheels turning” in his second year at the megachurch that “I really needed someone I could count on who could help us.”

“As a pastor, you say you can do that in addition to your other duties, but you cut corners,” Chappell said. “The more you have someone who can take some of that off you the more successful you’re going to be.”

Chappell led the church’s annual giving campaign the previous year himself and saw growth. “We could do it ourselves,” he said. “But we’re stronger when we have a consultant who comes in to help.”

Bruce Cochran, pastor of 250-member First Baptist Church of Seymour, IN says the professional help they received increased their effectiveness, developed leaders, freed them for regular pastoral duties and resulted in significant financial gains to support church ministries.

Cochran said the difference in conducting their campaign internally as they have done, or in using a consultant “was polish, professionalism, efficiency and comprehensiveness.”

“It was different because it was better,” Cochran said. “It was communicated better, participation was better, and it was not just the pastor standing up and saying we should do this.”

First Baptist’s priority was to return to the place where it could again devote 20 percent of its income to missions – an historical standard the church had to back away from during the recession. Results were so positive the church is again giving to missions at that generous level.

The Brentwood church also gives missions high priority and dovetailed one of its satellite churches into its annual campaign effort with professional help.

Chappell said his church did not emphasize a financial goal or the need to fund a budget. “We pointed out that the stronger our generosity the deeper our outreach,” Chappell said.

The result was a growth in commitments of “roughly 340” new giving units and an $800,000 increase in committed gifts. “That is “really significant” for us, he said.

The satellite church, which was conducting its campaign at the same time, saw an increase of 65 percent – or $100,000 – which was “enormous.”

Chappell encourages pastors to address stewardship as a spiritual discipline. Besides, he said, “everybody’s talking about money” and the conversation is better directed from the pulpit than in the parking lot.

“The only thing worse than a church that always talks about money is one that never talks about money,” he said. “I’ve never known a person who accidently tithed. Discipleship is not an accident, it’s an intention.”

What about a capital campaign?

Although churches are more likely to go it alone in an annual stewardship event, what about a capital campaign for a big project? Such a campaign typically raises significant funds from members over a three-year period to accomplish something very significant that annual budgeting simply cannot do.

Look, no consultant brings money with him or her. All the money committed during a campaign will come from the members themselves, who catch the vision God is casting for their church. “We can do it ourselves,” members may say. “We are a generous church and hiring a consultant shows a lack of faith in our people.”

Consider a couple of responses to that.

First, wisdom and experience matters, and those who provide it come with a cost.

Second, no matter which member is assigned the task of coordinating a capital campaign, responsibility ultimately falls to the pastor. Always. Now consider all of the tasks that already consume your pastor. Do you fully appreciate the hours spent in ministry, sermon prep, administration, counseling, mentoring staff, community involvement, visitation, prayer and teaching? Do you want to add another plate to those he is spinning? Another straw to the burden?

Third, although I don’t have statistics, anecdotal evidence is rampant that a pastor spends all of his or her political chips when leading a campaign. The necessity to cajole volunteers and to hold them accountable, to plan, set up and conduct meetings, to train committees, monitor budgets and materials, combined with the ongoing additional work with architects and builders simply is overwhelming. When the campaign is done, they are burned out and used up, with no political capital remaining. Too often their last official act as pastor is to lead the building’s dedication.

Help in choosing a consultant

The idea of choosing counsel to help you teach stewardship and generosity in the context of an annual campaign is a fairly new concept. “Teaching” is an added element from most capital campaigns and choosing counsel with ministerial experience and a deep appreciation for the ministries of the Church is very helpful.

The right professional counsel will offer insight, technical assistance and production services typically too time consuming for most congregations to duplicate on their own.

Make your expectations clear. The right counsel will operate in the background and will always shine the light on staff, but his/her enthusiasm and energy will infuse your staff with hope and anticipation.

Be “up front” about your church statistics and whether or not you have any issues, or skeletons, that should be addressed upfront to increase your chances for success.

Remember, your first conversation with a prospective counsel carries no obligation for either party. Consider that a consultant is coming to you at his or her own expense, so it is incumbent upon you not to host a parade of prospective consultants just to hear what they have to say. If you connect with a consultant and decide to engage his or her services, cancel any later interviews scheduled with others.

Write a clear letter of agreement or contract that details the areas of responsibility for the consultant and the client. The letter of agreement should also detail the financial arrangements, the period of the partnership, and how it can be terminated at anytime by the client.

Chemistry is important when you make your selection. And, when you have decided, work to develop trust. When you trust, and incorporate him or her into your staff and church functions, you will increase the sense of family and everyone will operate more effectively.

Your consultant can bring a sense of urgency to your effort, gently driving actions and results.

He or she also can bring a sense of confidence to church leaders. They’ve done this before. Trust them.

Call or write me and I will be glad to help you work through any questions you have about the process, with no obligation.

Building for the past

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France.  This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again.

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining vestiges of the earnest effort.

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies and munitions moved through the mile long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere belowground inhabitable.

There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars.

The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating WWI. But the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment.

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through a break in the line through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered.

French intentions were right. Their execution was good. But they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.

This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense.

American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas.

Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

Are you crouching behind a Maginot Line at work, clinging to former processes, staffing and equipment, while competitors punch through your product line with better tools and innovation?

Is your church trying to defend itself from the perceived threat of its surrounding culture while young people who easily learn to navigate the culture are finding your bunker increasingly irrelevant?

Those who build to defend against a past threat will be overwhelmed easily by the real challenges of the future.

Does your stuff impede your true blessing?

I’m reluctant to call the circumstances I enjoy “blessings” because that implies that God favors me over others who are not experiencing a similar rain of goodness.

And yet, in my work helping Christians to grow in generosity, it is hard to find another word that better describes the basket of tangible stuff for which I express gratitude daily, and with which I ought to be generous.

So if I’m encouraging church members to become newly aware, freshly appreciative, more generous and ultimately to understand the relationship of their faith life with their “stuff,” what better word can I use than “blessings?”

I’m trying. Among many unsatisfying synonyms for “stuff” are words such as baggage, junk, gear, things, effects, luggage, objects and paraphernalia. None of those work in helping us gain a perspective of generosity and appreciation to God who provides.

But in my search one synonym in particular forced me to rethink my relationship to the “things” with which I surround myself: the word impedimenta.

Yes, the very things we surround ourselves with, that fill our lives and garages, shelves, walls and closets, that we consider essential stuff, or even “blessings,” can be an impediment to a life lived with freedom and flexibility. All of the energy and attention required to accumulate, arrange, protect, maintain and insure our “stuff” can impede our development as spiritual beings.

We have no energy left to furnish our spiritual house when we devote so much to our stuff. An “impediment” is baggage that retards our progress. And yet, the baggage that impedes us also defines us. The longer we live, the more baggage naturally accrues to us, like barnacles to our hull as we ply the sea of life.

Do you ever feel if you could just unload some of your baggage you would be free to do something that would satisfy your deeper longing? Do you want to teach but can’t give up your executive job because a teacher’s salary won’t support your large house?

Would you retire if you didn’t have six years left to pay on that dream car you’ve lusted over since you first felt the rumble of eight cylinders as a teen? Maybe you wish you could help a poor child attend church camp this summer, but you just replaced a room of “old” furniture.

Your church is growing and needs your help but you’ve got a big bare spot on a wall perfect for that original three dimensional art piece you just saw at the show downtown. You have coats for cool weather, cold weather and frigid weather, but you need one for rainy cold weather so you can’t buy a coat for the person who has none. Impedimenta.

Americans are dragging so much baggage along with us that storage is a $24 billion business. Bloomberg reported in December 2014 that the U.S. had 48,500 mini-warehouse facilities, with a combined 2.3 billion square feet of space – or seven square feet for every man, woman and child in the country.

According to the national Self Storage Association one of every 10 households in the U.S. rents a unit. It’s not uncommon to spend more to store items over time than the items are worth.

In an emergency, our relationship to stuff can change dramatically. Precious cargo crossing the sea becomes so much ballast to cast overboard when the ship is in danger of sinking. Settlers crossing Rocky Mountain passes in the 19th century tossed goods out of the wagon when the horses could not pull the weight.

What “blessings” are you willing to shed so that you may take the next step toward a life defined by freedom and generosity without impediment?

Write me at normanjameson@gmail.com to start a conversation about generosity in your church.

Cultivating a Spirit of Generosity

Your church has probably just come through a “meet the budget” effort to gather pledges and encourage giving in the new fiscal year — so the church can meet its budget. Like the agricultural harvest, the fall season just seems to be the time to talk about ingathering.

Your “fall stewardship emphasis” may be little more than a single sermon on tithing, or perhaps a brief series on a biblical perspective on money. Seldom do such efforts inspire an outpouring of financial response. But face it, most pastors don’t like to talk about money and most congregants don’t want to hear about it from the pulpit.

In the annual ritual, few churches actually pledge the amount required for their budgets. Yet churches move forward, even with some trepidation and even if commitments fall short of the needs the budget declares. Church staff will study the history of actual receipts versus amounts pledged, calculate whether the addition of new members balances the deaths of old members and pray for all members to be generous.

But where are members to learn generosity? Who is teaching them generosity?

This Baptist News Global story  about a Baylor class that cultivates generosity says generosity begins with gratitude. The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 4:11 he has learned to be grateful in whatever circumstances he finds himself. Circumstances have changed often enough in my life — sometimes much to my surprise — that I’ve learned the truth and value of Paul’s attitude.

While it’s been used often enough to become a cliche, the truth remains that an attitude of gratitude is essential for a happy life and a generous spirit. In my work helping churches to foster such an attitude to encourage generosity among members, we never talk about the budget. We talk about gratitude and generosity as a reflection of that attitude. Budgets take care of themselves as a side effect of members learning the true joy of generosity.

I’m glad to talk with you about how we might work to plant such a seed in your congregation.