How To (Effectively) Save Money and Pay for Christmas

Christmas is just around the corner, and most people probably find themselves in somewhat of a panic. One group doesn't know how it will pay for Christmas, and the other group will quickly realize that they have overspent on Christmas. 

Both groups will be tempted to whip out a credit card in order to split the difference.

Don't be among them.

Instead, I would like to propose a simple method of paying for Christmas.  But you cannot embrace this method unless you realize the fundamental problem at the heart of it all:

You are your own worst enemy!!!

You are not as good with money as you think you are. If you've ever closely tracked your spending and made a budget, then you know what I am talking about.  The moment you start ignoring the constraints of your budget because you think you are "fine," is the very moment you will start to overspend, and will ultimately start coming up short financially.

The first thing you need to do is to make a budget.

Decide ahead of time how much money you are going to spend on Christmas every year.  As Dave Ramsey says, "Tell every dollar where to go instead of wondering where every dollar went!"  Your money needs to have a name. Assign it one on a spreadsheet, and use it to track your monthly spending.

The second thing you need to do is automatically save.

You will need to start saving a small amount of your monthly budget and setting aside funds for Christmas.  If you are going to drop a grand or two on Christmas this year for you and your entire family, it's a lot easier to figure out where to come up with the money for Christmas if you've been setting aside $100 or $200 a month throughout the year, than wondering where the money is going to come from five or six weeks out.

Christmas comes every year.  It's not an emergency, so don't treat it as one.  Plan for it through monthly budgeting. 

The third thing you need to do is to setup a separate checking account with a bank that is not your primary bank. 

Sure, such seems like a hassle, but ever since discovering that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to money, I've found another truth: 

You need to hide money from yourself!

In realizing I am my own worst enemy, I've also discovered if I mix my Christmas money with the same bank account I use to pay the bills with, or my "rainy day" emergency funds account, I've discovered that I either don't have as much money going into Christmas as I thought I did, or after Christmas, I've discovered that I've spent more than I intended on spending,  and now have less savings for other things that I was also saving for. 

So the best solution I've discovered is to automatically hide my monthly Christmas savings in another checking account at another bank.  That way I won't accidentally spend Christmas funds on other things, and likewise, I won't be able to easily spend more than what is in that account.  When the funds in that account hit zero, Christmas shopping is officially over. 

And since this Christmas account is at another bank, you don't have to worry about auto-drafting your account and taking money from other accounts you've already earmarked for other things.  The only way to spend more money at this point would be to fall into the temptation of using another card, or you would have to add more funds into your already depleted Christmas account. 

Of course, it is still possible to still fall into this temptation.  However, I've discovered that by having a separate Christmas account, you provide a "check" to yourself that hopefully keeps your spending under control.  If you over spend, your overspending will at least be slowed down by the slight trouble of having to get money from another account.  You won't be able to spend money on other things without thinking about it first.  You will be forced to recognize that you've reached your maximum spending budget. 

And even if you do decide you can afford to spend more money on Christmas than you originally budgeted for in your Christmas account, at least you will be forced to account instead of just wondering where all the money went.  Either way, this will help you keep your spending under control, and Christmas won't become an annual financial disaster.

Finally, this idea can be applied to multiple spending areas.

Don't just limit this idea to Christmas.  Apply it to birthdays, vacations, or saving money for a car or a new house.  Whatever your major financial goals are, I highly recommend opening an account for each one.  And in doing such, I believe over time you will discover that you are better off financially than you were when you had all your eggs in one basket.

And while it might be a little too late to start saving for Christmas this year, if you start today, you can start to plan for Christmas next year.   By removing the financial stress Christmas creates by simply budgeting every month and moving a little money into an account earmarked specifically for Christmas, just wait and see how much more enjoyment you will get out of the Christmas season when you know how it's all going to be paid for!

Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!


The Apocalypse (a.k.a.. Election 2016!)

Jesus need not come back.  The apocalypse has already happened without Him.  And it happened via the presidential election cycle of 2016 in America. 

Well... not exactly.  But it sorta feels that way. 

Depending on who you voted for, there is a pretty good chance that you viewed Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as the Devil incarnate.

"They" were the ultimately embodiment of evil, and in order to save our nation, they had to be stopped at all costs.  Because if the other candidate won, America would descend into unprecedented levels of darkness from which it cannot ever return. 

Facebook became the battlefield of America's second Civil War. The closest of family and friends became emotionally unglued, resulting not only in heated exchanges, but in a massive number of casualties.  Friends lists were purged, and people were uninvited from weddings and holiday get-togethers, all because a loved one supported the wrong presidential candidate.

The church has reflected this cultural division as well.  Voting for the wrong candidate resulted in many Christians smugly questioning the salvation of many other Christians who did not.  After all, it was abundantly clear which candidate God was backing.  And if it wasn't very clear to you, there were many prophetic voices in certain circles who were more than willing to tell you which candidate God favored, and to give that candidate a significance similar to that of some major well liked Old Testament figure.  For some, failure to vote for God's man (or woman) was a test of your commitment to Christian orthodoxy, and exposed how deeply compromised you were in your heart of hearts.

And now that the election is over, there are many who rejoice over Donald Trump winning the election, and likewise, there are many who are deeply fearful of the same.  And depending on which candidate you supported, there are as many news outlets that are willing to feed your feelings of triumph as there are those who are willing to feed your feelings of anger and insecurity.

I know I wrestled with my emotions over this election.  And there has been a time or two (or three) where I got caught up in wrestling other people who were also wrestling their emotions too.

Things ought not be this way.  While I think it is a great thing for people to be involved in politics, and to passionately champion important causes, and to hash out difficult topics, I can't help but feel that we are in danger of being too emotionally invested in this process. 

As Christians we have to remember that as much as we love our country, America isn't our religion, and we should stop treating it as such.  Our identity shouldn't be grounded in her, or a particular political philosophy or candidate.  We must avoid any language that would tempt others to see certain political leaders as some sort of mini-messiah.  God already gave the world a Messiah, and His name is Jesus!  And for heavens sake, we need to stop confusing America with Israel and/or the church.  America is neither.  And the degree we treat America as if it were either of these shows just how much we've made America into a religion.

So, instead of becoming unglued over politics, as Christians I believe we need to become increasingly unattached. 

And in saying unattached I don't mean being uninvolved.  On the contrary, I believe the church should be involved in politics, but in doing so, we need to realize in our heart of hearts that whatever our level of involvement is, we are ultimately serving this country as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, and as citizens of another kingdom. 

Such is like the ambassadors of our own country who serve overseas in other nations, representing the interests of the United States while abroad.  Where appropriate, they give their two cents on various issues that arise.  But does the American ambassador to France get bent out of shape when France elects somebody that ambassador perceives to be an idiot as the president of France?  Probably not.  Why?  Because even though they may have a great love for France, their loyalty is back home, in America. 

And I believe that's how we as Christians need to be when it comes with our attitude towards politics.  We are to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ, who while getting involved of the political life of the nation we are serving in, ultimately has a heart that longs for the things that are back home. 

Armed with the mindset, that we are ultimately ambassadors of Christ, will do much to safeguard our hearts from looking at this election (or the next one!) as if it were the apocalypse.  And maybe... just maybe, God will be able to use us as people of influence as a result, so we are able to further His will in this world. 


The Jesus in Someone Else

When I started out as a fiery young prophet in Bible college at Lee University, I was convinced that unless you believed exactly like I did on even the most hair splitting of issues, you were  quite possibly destined for the eternal fires of hell.

And why not? 

I had the Bible.  And I had the Holy Spirit living in me.  So all I needed to know that I was in the truth, and that you were in error, was simply to read the Bible and then turn inward to find out what was true and what was not.  So, if I did that, and you didn't agree with me, well then "bless God," (as us Southerners sometimes say) something was clearly wrong with you!  The fate of your eternal soul must be hanging in the balance, and it was my job to make sure you got on my side of the fence lest you perish.

I'm guessing most of us can probably identify with this story.  Either, because you've been "that guy" before, or because you've known someone else who was a lot like me (and some of you who read my blog knew me when I was this guy!)

But one day something inside me changed.

One day God showed up in a pretty significant way.  And He did so through some of the people I thought were walking a dangerous tight rope over the very fires of hell.  All of a sudden I was startled as I discovered something of the Jesus living in me was also living in some of these very same people.  At that time, "my heart was strangely warmed," (to echo the words of John Wesley).

And I experienced a change.  No longer did I look at these men as possible enemies, but I saw them for who they truly were all along, they were my brothers and sisters in whom Christ dwelled. 

Since then as I have grown more and more in my faith, I've begun to realize that the truth of Jesus Christ living in me is not as important as the truth that Jesus Christ is living in other people. 

Don't get me wrong, the indwelling presence of Christ, "Christ in you, the hope of glory!" is a very important truth that we all need to grasp and realize as Christians.  But we need to grow up from this basic doctrine. 

I believe our evangelical expression of the faith has made far too much of this theology, and as foundationally important as it is, it has almost become a doctrine that has crippled us instead of a doctrine that has equipped us.

Yes, Jesus is alive and well in me... but Jesus is also alive and well in a lot of other people. 

And as such, I need to be looking to see Him and hear Him in the lives of other people just as much as I am looking for Him inside of me.  "The witness" I find confirmed in me I need to look for in others as well.  For Jesus is just as much inside of them as He is me.

Therefore, the moment I stop looking to see and hear Jesus in other people is the moment is the moment that I become a danger to myself and others.  Not only in the sense of thinking just about everyone besides me is a heretic in the making, and treating them like it, but also in the sense that I am cutting off from myself the opportunity to truly serve others in the body of Christ, and to also be served by them. 

Jesus stressed the importance of us grasping this truth.  So much so that in the judgment to come, Jesus said we will be judged by how we treated others whom Christ was found to be in:

"I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in...." (Matthew 25:35, NASB).

While there is an undeniable inward focus of our faith, and the need for us to have a personal relationship with God, this relationship only exists as a starting point in our faith.  The doctrine of "Christ in you" was never meant to turn you into a prophetic hermit, or to be a doctrine by which you were suddenly empowered to overwhelmingly conquer whatever addictions or personality hang-ups you have going on in your life (although there is truth to that).

Rather, the doctrine of "Christ in you" was always designed by God to turn out outward instead of inward.  It was designed by God to make you think twice about how you interact with others and how you treat them.  Instead of treating others as deplorably and ignorable, the doctrine of "Christ in you" was designed by God to compel you to start thinking about "the least of these," and actively seeking them out as someone to serve. It was meant to change our focus from that which is inward to that which is outward.

As a result, folks like me should be motivated to play the fiery young prophet role a little less often, and become more like the men and women who have faithfully served Christ by washing the saints' feet. 

Is there still a time and place to take bold stands for the truth, to confront an erring apostle Peter with his hypocrisy, and to be a voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the ways of the Lord?  Absolutely.  Are there times in which we must look inward to summon up incredible Sampson like strength to overcome adversity?  Yes! 

But such things are few and far in between.  They should not be everyday occurrences.  What should be something of much more frequency is how often we find ourselves bowed before another, in humble and quiet service, seeing the face of Jesus in others, and tending to them even as we would if it were the Lord Himself.  For in truth, through them, we are caring for the Lord himself. 

But if all we do is think about the Jesus living inside of us, we will never see Him, even if He is right before our very eyes. 


God's Destiny for Me on the Hamster Wheel of Life

What's the meaning of life?

Why am I here?

What's God's purpose for my life?

Why was I created?

These are questions we often regularly ask ourselves. Surely there is more to life than the never ending routine of eating, working, sleeping, and paying the bills.  Surely God put me here for a greater purpose than just jumping on the never ending hamster wheel of life, right?

The longer I live, the more I begin to think the answer to this question is "no."

I don't have a purpose for which I'm here. I don't have a destiny I'm trying to fulfill.

Rather, I have a thousand and one purposes for why I'm here.  Rather, I have a thousand and one destinies that I am pursuing.

And those purposes are fulfilled as I carry out the everyday things of this life.  Life is far too rich and complex and beautiful, and filled with too much variable and nuance, for me to ever begin to think that God has just called me to do one or two things with my life.  Rather than a handful of things to do before I die, God has called me to do a vast multitude of things. 

When I was younger, God put me in this world to be a student, to learn as much as I could so as to prepare me for the rest of my life, so that one day I might be able to get a decent job, to help take care  of my family, to serve my employers, to contribute to the world economy, and to be a blessing to others.

And as I've grown older, I've seen those purposes expand. God's purposes for my life have changed from season to season.  In different seasons God has made me to be different things, and I expect He will continue to do such.  I've seen that time and again, that one thing leads to another, and to another, and to another.  Things I never even dreamed of for my life have come to pass.

My life has too much going on to be reduced to merely to one or two purposes. And so does yours.

Our lives have so many purposes, and so many different callings. So many in fact that you and I will never know the full purpose for our lives on this side of eternity, and exactly why God put us here.

Yes, I may be conscious of a few of those things along the way, as I see the hand of God working in my life, and as I respond to the leading of His Spirit.  But God has put me here to be much more than what I do between nine and five, or what I do on Sunday mornings in church, or to relentlessly pursue some single focused calling.

I'm a son, a husband, a neighbor, a friend, a banker, a minister, a giver, a citizen, a stranger passing by....

And while my focus shifts throughout the day, and some of the things God calls me to do receive more attention in certain seasons of my life, I'm never just one of these things. My life is too big to be just that.

Yet how often do we obsess over our perceived sense of "calling?"  How often are we afraid to let go of the things that God given us to do, in order that we might now embrace a new calling and purpose in our life? 

How often do we fight against seasons spent in the proverbial wilderness, feeling like by entering into such seasons that we might somehow be missing out on our callings in this life, and doing nothing more than wasting away? 

How often do we feel like a library book, shelved with no purpose other than to sit around and collect dust?

How often do we feel like our current situation in life is holding us back from fulfilling God's "real purpose" being fulfilled in our lives? 

As a Bible college graduate who has spent much time in ministry and serving the church, God only knows how often I feel that way today.  I spent years in school studying theology, learning Greek, reading books, honing my preaching craft, serving the homeless and the poor, driving the church bus, teaching, leading small groups, preaching on street corners, visiting people in the hospital, and a million other things. 

Yet where am I today? 

I'm underwriting mortgages for a living at a big bank, working 60 hours a week, and I'm not even leading a children's Sunday school class in church.  I blog from time to time. I share my faith with others when opportunity presents itself. I chime in something edifying when I get together with other Christians. I encourage my wife.  I post things on Facebook.

Yet, I'm not anywhere near to where I thought I would be at this stage of my life, in spite of all my training and time spent in preparation for "the ministry."

Needless to say, the opportunity for feelings of doubt, self-pity, and loathing are huge.  I could be jealous of others, and angry.  I could be bitter and resentful.  I could be entering a mid-life crisis where I chase the dreams that got away by chasing things that would only destroy me.  I could be angry at God.

I could do all those things and more... that is, if I saw my life as having only one primary purpose or calling. But I don't. 

Instead, I embrace where I am at in this life.  I look at the plow set before me, and instead of figuring out the unholy mental Trinity of would've/could've/should've, I prefer to figure out how I can best be faithful to the task God has given me at hand.  Such not only helps me keep my sanity, but it actually allows me to find a great sense of joy and purpose in what God has me doing in the right here and right now.

And it is from being faithful to the task God has given me in the present that will truly allow His purposes to be accomplished in my life.  It's in the little things I do time and time again, day in and day out, things destined to easily be forgotten by me, but warmly remembered and honored by God, that when faithfully carried out, will ultimately constitute the "purpose" in my life.

And that purpose is to ultimately make me more and more like Jesus, no matter what I do to occupy my time between the date of my birth and the date of my death, even if all I did was eat, work, sleep, and pay the bills.  For being faithful to the task Jesus has placed in your hand, that is no small thing.  That indeed, is the greatest thing you could ever hope to do with your life.  It was the purpose for which you and I were ultimately created. 

And until we learn to be happy in that, we will never be truly happy in anything else. 


How to Find a New Church

After much discussion, my wife and I recently decided it was time to find a new church to call home.  Thankfully, we did not have to search very long, and I am happy to report that after only visiting 3 different churches in the area over a short period of time, the Lord brought us to a church that both of us are very happy to be a part of.

Thinking on our brief journey, my mind naturally turned to those who might find themselves in a similar situation.  I've known some people who have spent months and years trying to find a church to belong to, but for a number of reasons, they never manage to settle down somewhere.  My hopes in reading this brief article, you'll be able to narrow down your search and that the Lord will help you find somewhere that you can grow and serve. 

Here are my tips on finding a new church:

1.  Keep it Local:

I believe this to be one of the most crucial things in finding a church as well as the most practical.  I've been part of a church before where I had to drive 30+ minutes on average Sunday morning just to get to church.  Such makes mid-week activities and fellowship outside of Sunday morning gatherings very difficult, especially if you live in a large city like I do, and have to battle terrible traffic.  And like any other relationship, long distances often creates problems. 

Therefore, I believe if you are looking for a new church, unless you live in a very rural area, you need to get out a map (like Google Maps), and draw a circle within a 10-15 minute drive of your house, and limit your search for a new church to congregations located within that distance from your home.  Church isn't just supposed to be a Sunday morning activity.  It's supposed to be part of your life.  And the proximity you have to drive to be involved at church and in frequent fellowship with other believers becomes increasingly difficult the further you get away from home.  If you have to drive a far distance to be involved in the life of your church, it will ultimately hurt the quality of the fellowship you enjoy.

2. Leave the Checklist at Home:

For some people, finding a new church is often like dating.  People build ridiculously long checklists of things they are looking for in a church, and as a result, they never find that perfect church to belong to.  I did this for a few years when I was dating.  And as a result, I found starting new relationships very difficult, because nobody out there was good enough for me, as they didn't meet my highly itemized list of have's/have not's.  The result?  I was the king of first dates, but I didn't have many second dates.  And that's because I dismissed many girls outright simply because they didn't conform to this long list of what I thought the perfect girl for me would actually look like. 

It was only when I finally gave up on dating a list and looking to build real relationships that I found the woman who became my wife.  And if I compared my wife to some of the ridiculous things I had put on my ever growing list, I probably wouldn't be married as I am this day.  And if you approach finding a church this way, the chances are, you'll never find a church to belong to.  The perfect church, like the perfect woman, simply doesn't exist. 

A church is a highly relational community, therefore, you should engage each potential church you consider joining in a very relational way.  Be gracious.  There is no such thing as a perfect church.  If there were, you would ruin it by showing up.  Show each church you visit a bunch of grace and cut them some slack.  If they do things a little differently than you are typically accustomed to doing at church, don't pass judgment on them, rather, simply embrace them in the same way Christ has embraced you.  Get to know the people there and find out why they do things the way they do.  You might actually find out that you prefer their unique approach to things.

3. Go to Serve:

While it is important when looking for a church to find somewhere that can help meet you and your family's needs, don't pick a church just because they have great preaching, great singing, and a great youth program.  Don't go to church with a consumeristic mindset, thinking of only what you can get out of belonging to a certain congregation.

Rather, have the attitude of Christ, and look at each church as a place you are going in order to ultimately serve.  Only in looking to be a blessing to others will you ultimately be blessed.  And only in serving your local church will you be able to rightfully say a certain church is "your" church.  Don't go to church to get, go to church to give.  See what you can bring to the table instead of the other way around.

4. Don't Stumble Over Theology or Denominational Affiliations:

While the theology of a church is important, it should not be the primary reason why you pick a particular church.  And denominational affiliation should have very little weight in your mind as to why you decide to attend a certain church (most folks don't really care about denominational affiliations these days anyway, except those who have their bread and butter made by them).  Over the years I've learned that no matter what the official denominational affiliation a church has, and no matter what creed is printed in its bylaws, most churches tend to have a very wide spectrum of beliefs in each congregation anyway.  This is seen even in churches that are very theologically rigid, or have strict practical commitments.

So, don't get too hung up on the particular theological bent or denominational affiliation (or lack thereof)  of any given congregation.  Churches tend to be made up of actual people, and not systematic theologians who are interested in doing nothing more than defending and propagating their pet theology.  Every person is at different places in their walk in Christ, and not every person is going to see eye to eye on all of the particulars of the faith.  We all see a little bit dimly.

Therefore, while I would caution against being involved with churches who don't commit to at least a basic evangelical theology and lifestyle as a community, keep in mind that the apostle Paul was a minister to congregations where some people had doubts about if Jesus Christ was really bodily resurrected!  They weren't really altogether sure about that fact.  Some had their doubts.  And many other churches that Paul wrote letters to were struggling with accepting some very other basic Christian beliefs that we tend to take for granted today.

So, keep an open heart and mind about wherever it is the Lord may be leading you and your family to worship and serve alongside.  The Christian community is a very diverse community, and each congregation often has a long history.  Engage each church relationally, and you'll find theological and denominational affiliations tend to not be the giant hurdles that some have made them into over the years. 

In my opinion, so long as you can see Jesus Christ living in the lives of others, and you find fellowship in the Holy Spirit, that is all that you ultimately need in order to belong to a church.  And as you relate to others in the congregation as actual people, instead of a mission field of people you need to convert and reform or correct, and I believe you'll find a lot of these traditional barriers to fellowship fall to the wayside, and you might just find yourself planted firmly by the Lord in a church that is full of folks struggling with their theology just like you.


Above all, when searching for a new church, trust the Lord to guide you to the right place.  And give an ear to those who care about you in your life, and see where the Lord might be leading you through them.  And if you are married, work very hard with your spouse to come into agreement about where you and your family should serve the body of Christ. 

Finding a new church can sometimes be a difficult thing to do, but it doesn't need to be needlessly difficult.  I firmly believe if you take the things written above to heart, you'll find your search for a new church comes to an end very, very soon.

God be with you in your journey.